Commentary by Cindy Ross
With new electronics coming into the house as a Christmas present, it was time to clean house. I wanted to do the "right thing" by not tossing the old electronics out with the trash. So I started thinking green, and looked into recycling.
Although states are making tracks to keep e-waste out of landfills and incinerators because the heavy metals can leach into the groundwater, it is still legal in most states to dump them there. Eighty-six percent of e-waste ends up in these landfills and incinerators.
But the rest are recycled, I thought. But then I learned some sobering facts.
First off, only about 13 percent of recycled e-waste is handled responsibly. Some recyclers really act as middlemen, reselling the defunct electronics to waste traders who ship it to developing countries like China, India, Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria. Labor costs are very low in those countries and environmental controls are ineffective or non-existent. The recycling methods used are extremely unsafe.
In Guiyu, China, for example, recycling the precious metals out of electronics is often a backyard operation. The old computers are smashed open with hammers, breaking cathode ray tubes and releasing the toxic phosphorus dust sealed inside. To melt the lead solder, circuit boards are cooked in woks over open fires, while the workers breathe the toxic lead fumes. The plastic insulation is burned off wires, releasing dioxins and furans and causing some of the most poisonous fumes known in the world.
After stripping the computer, the unwanted, yet highly hazardous, leaded glass is thrown into former irrigation ditches. The dissolved heavy metals and acids are flushed directly into the rivers.
Scientists have discovered the highest cancer-causing dioxin levels in the world in Guiyu. The miscarriage rate is six times normal and seven out of ten kids have very high blood lead levels.
According to a 60 Minutes segment titled The Wasteland, which aired in November 2008, thousands of people a day are moving into slums to do this toxic work at $8 a day. Most are peasant farmers who couldnt make a living off the land and have few other options. In Delhi, India, 10,000 people, including children, work in the informal recycling industry.
The Natural Resources Defense Council figures we trash 130,000 computers a day. And according to the Electronics Take Back Coalition, we export enough electronic waste each year to fill more than 5,000 shipping containers.
An international treaty, the Basel Convention, came into force in 1992 to control the cross border movement of hazardous waste. It was ratified by 170 countries, including virtually all industrial countries except the United States.
We have no federal law against sending e-waste to dealers overseas. We do not rate used electronics as hazardous even though they can be mismanaged overseas and cause serious health and environmental problems. Only electronics that contain cathode ray tubes (like those found in television screens and computer monitors) are considered hazardous in the U.S. and are illegal to ship overseas for "recycling." But even these controls are easily circumvented and are continuously violated. It seems to me the regulatory definition of hazardous waste needs to be changed. Thats for Congress and the agencies to do, but theres something you and I can tackle.
Many Americans have adopted the "reduce, reuse, recycle" philosophy but lack sound information on their disposable options, but its difficult to know which companies to trust.
According to an August 2008 federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report, many electronic recyclers in the U.S. who claimed to be environmentally friendly and promoted a responsible public image did not practice what they claimed.
The Basel Action Network and Electronics Take Back Campaign have qualified a group of electronic recyclers known as e-Stewards. There are many in the Chesapeake watershed and they often schedule community/neighborhood pick-ups. These recyclers have met criteria for globally responsible recycling. They qualified via a desk and documentation audit by tracking the toxic materials to final disposition.
To find one in your neighborhood go to www.e-stewards.org for a comprehensive listing of responsible recyclers, including locations and services. Also,
www.Earth911.com is a great resource for handling used electronics and the recycling of nearly everything.
Another possibility is donating or selling usable computers to companies that refurbish them and resell them or donate them to underfunded organizations. A good one is
According to Pike Research Survey, the average consumer has 2.8 unused electronic devices sitting around the house. That might rise after Christmas. Lets take it upon ourselves to do the right thing and find a responsible e-recycler we can use.
Cindy Ross lives in Pennsylvania and has written 6 books about the outdoors. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.