The most recent findings published by the EPA estimate that, of the 2.25 million tons of televisions, cell phones and computer products discarded in 2007, only 10 to 18 percent of them were recycled (percentage varies based on type of electronic device). Adding salt to the wound, an estimated 50 to 80 percent of all electronics that are “consciously” disposed of by today’s standards are shipped off to China, India or Ghana due to the complexities and high-costs associated with safe electronics recycling and lack of enforced regulations.
“There are no federal laws that require e-waste recycling by commercial entities or households. Also, as with e-waste disposal, there are few federal environmental regulatory requirements applicable to recycling operations themselves (including the export of e-waste for recycling or reuse).” - Linda Luther, Congressional Research Service
Aside from the mere vulgarity of passing our “trash” along to another area of the world, sent “away”, for others to deal with, improper and uninformed electronics recycling poses many threats to both environmental and human health.
“Although there may be limited data regarding how e-waste is managed, the consequences of export to developing countries that manage it improperly are becoming increasingly evident. Operations in Guiyu in the Shantou region of China have gained particular attention. Observed recycling operations involve burning the plastic coverings of materials to extract metals for scrap, openly burning circuit boards to remove solder or soaking them in acid baths to strip them for gold or other metals. Acid baths are then dumped into surface water. Among other impacts to those areas have been elevated blood lead levels (BLL) in children and soil and water contaminated with heavy metals” - Linda Luther, Congressional Research Service
Based on a release provided by Basal Action Network (BAN), thirty of the leading domestic electronic recyclers met in Chicago last week calling on the federal government to lead by example and ensure that the old computers, printers, phones and other electronics from all federal agencies are not sold or auctioned to brokers that will then simply export the e-waste to developing countries. The meeting drew together e-Stewards Recyclers that have agreed to become certified to the e-Stewards Standard for responsible recycling.
According to the most recent data available, 25% of the U.S. government’s approximately 2.1 million computers are replaced annually, which adds up to more than 500,000 each year. The U.S. government is believed to be the largest singular source of electronic waste on earth today.
During the Presidential Proclamation last November, President Obama announced the creation of a new Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship. The President called on the federal agencies to develop a national strategy for electronics stewardship . An announcement on e-waste policy is expected sometime in May from the White House.
With a mindful and humane recycling stream in place, earth stewards will be able to trust that end-of-life electronics are processed with a much lower global impact. Sadly, the cart is moving in front of the horse as the new-wave adage demands that we first “reduce”, then “reuse” and, when all else fails, “recycle”. Television commercials, such Best Buy’s “buy back” satire, may promise corporate responsibility; however, they continue to preach the sermon of planned-obsolescence to the viewing public. As conscious, skeptical consumers, we must learn to scale back our purchasing of the resource-intensive electronics of the current age.