The Sad Truth of EWaste

Think about how many electronic gadgets you have had during your lifetime.  This includes cell phones, laptops, tv’s, game consoles, reading tablets, kitchen appliances, fitbits, basically anything that has an electrical component and serves a specific purpose. In this day and age, electronic devices are getting better, faster.  The American culture is all about who has the latest technology. Each year, Americans wait in line for hours at the Apple store to get the brand new iPhone, and they’re willing to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars for it. It seems like the new thing to do is to get the newest gadget when it comes out, even though your old device still works perfectly fine. Have you ever thought about the negative environmental and health impacts that electronic waste (EWaste) contributes to the world? How about where the outdated devices end up?

The average American owns about 28 consumer electronics. Each year, 42 million tons of EWaste is generated worldwide—12 million tons from the United States alone, making the U.S. the largest producer of EWaste.  To get a better picture, 142K computers and 416K cell phones are discarded every day by the United States. EWaste are electronic devices at the “end” of its life that’s getting ready to be thrown out.  EWaste poses a threat to people and the environment because they contain harmful substances such as lead, calcium, and mercury that can seep into the soil and groundwater and contaminate the air we breathe. The recycling of electronic devices are becoming less of a popular method due to the fact that disposing and exporting EWaste to other countries is significantly cheaper and more convenient to get rid of the dilemma in the United States. Tech companies are using fewer rare minerals such as gold and copper in devices. The overall costs in recycling and processing toxic scraps from EWaste does not outweigh the easier solution of sending away this problem somewhere else.

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Even though the United States is one of the biggest contributors of EWaste in the world, we are the only developed country that has not banned exports of electronic waste. The Basel Action Network, which is a non-governmental organization working to combat the export of toxic waste from technology and other products from industrialized societies to developing countries has been signed but not yet ratified by the United States. This allows the U.S. to get away with exporting to less developed countries without consequences. EWaste from the United States are shipped to many countries in Asia and Africa, where “informal cottage industries” show up at the docks to buy the waste risking their health for a little extra money.  In Ghana and China, orphans and small children have been found searching, digging, burning and dismantling electronic waste parts in hopes to help their themselves and their families survive for a little extra cash, not knowing the detrimental effects that can cause cancer and a shorter lifespan. High levels of lead and calcium have been found in small children and people living around the area of EWaste sites.

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There have been organizations and programs to help combat the EWaste issue in the United States. The eStewards Program that many tech companies can be a part of certifies that facilities are in compliance to the Basel Convention. Recycling bins and monetary incentives are also given to people who chose to recycle and reuse electronic devices safely. Jim Puckett, a long time activist also spends a lot of his time investigating by tracking devices to see where EWaste ends up. Europe has one of the toughest EWaste laws and manufacturing companies there pay a fee to help recycle EWaste. What do you think we can do to combat the growing EWaste problem in America? Do you think government should intervene and make it illegal to export EWaste to developing countries?

References:

https://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/cleaning-electronic-waste-e-waste

https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-04-22/the-rising-cost-of-recycling-not-exporting-electronic-waste

https://www.akooba.com/blog/the-devastating-impacts-of-americas-e-waste-overseas

https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-06-02/us-still-dumping-some-its-toxic-e-waste-overseas

http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2013/e-waste.aspx

https://www.thebalance.com/e-waste-recycling-facts-and-figures-2878189

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8 thoughts on “The Sad Truth of EWaste

  1. I have always just assumed that when you trade in a phone/send back a phone that it would just be recycled into a refurbished product, but very interesting to learn that that is not exactly the case. I find it pretty terrifying that people that live around the mounds of these discarded electronics have high rates of toxic chemicals found in their blood/have developed diseases. It would be great if the government passed a law that was more strict on exporting EWaste, but I feel as though it boils down to consumerism in general; there would be less waste total if consumers used their electronics for their full, true lifespan. Less waste means that we might be able to just process it here and not even need to ship it off to developing countries.

    Do you or anyone happen to know if the amount of EWaste has risen in correlation to the recent phone contracts that allow you to upgrade your device whenever the new ones come out?

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  2. I’m not sure about the science behind the disposal of electronics but as Jasmine said, it is more a problem of consumerism than anything. A part of the reason for this historical spike in consumerism is the availability of financing products such as TVs, cars, and cell phones. This allows people to buy products that they can’t afford and upgrade to the newest thing every year. How many Americans could walk into a cell phone carrier and pay $1000 for an iphone upfront, let alone do so year after year? Like we saw with the housing market, these financial models are not sustainable in the long run and eventually will regulate themselves but until then consumerism will not stop expanding.

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  3. Right now consumerism in technology is having these horrendous effects overseas in places like China and Ghana. While it would be nice to see us step up and ratify some laws that cut down on this dumping, I wonder how it would play out in Congress – would it pass with essentially unanimous support like we saw with CFCs being banned, or would it linger like emissions capping in passing a law that has no serious consequences tied to it? We might experience some price increases on electronics if ewaste dumping becomes regulated, but hopefully we can look past this for the health and well-being of others. Personally, whenever I do upgrade to a new phone, my dad takes my old one and donates it to be used by the military (not exactly sure if it’s an organization or not), so reuse is a start in controlling ewaste of electronics that still operate just fine. However, this method doesn’t prevent broken or obsolete technology from being shipped overseas.

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    1. I don’t see problem with consumerism in America going away anytime soon. I believe that it is time to ban exports of electronic waste. If companies like Apple are benefitting from this consumerism, they should also be the ones to help alleviate the problem. This could be in the form of trade in programs that turn still usual devices into refurbished products, and the ones that are too far behind can be scrapped. If this imposes a higher cost on the companies then they can raise the price of their product, we as Americans will probably still buy it… All in all it is terrible that this is happening in the world and I believe that it is on the government to ban these materials from being exported to countries where they are not being properly disposed of.

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  4. This was a very interesting post. Working in a retail store that sells office supplies, computers, and printers I see this happening every day. We always have customers coming in to purchase new printers and/or computers as soon as new models are released. Some of these customers bring the items that the newly purchased items are replacing to be recycled, I see them sit in the backroom of our store for months until we collect enough of them to send off to be re-manufactured if possible, or alt east that’s what I hope is being done to them. After reading this blog, it makes me wonder what is actually happening to these items that are brought in to be recycled.

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  5. It is sad, but not surprising, to learn that we send our electronic waste to developing countries for them to deal with all of the negative consequences. There are many problems associated with this issue such as American consumerism, the U.S. taking advantage of less-developed countries, and the fact that companies design their electronics, which are made of materials that will last a very long time, to be disposable at the end of their life. In an ideal situation, the companies that make the products should take them back in order to reuse the parts to create new products; there should be a cycle of using these materials instead of a system of use and throw out.

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  6. I do not think the United States can come up with legislation to make importing these wastes illegal. As we have discussed in class, it is extremely difficult for environmental regulations to pass Congress. The fact that our nation is built on the idea and standard as world leader, it would be difficult to compromise our economy and environmental comfort with such legislation. I think if this system changes in the future, it will only be when countries like China become more developed, closing their income gaps and surpassing the US as an entire country. The waste has to go somewhere, and due to how the world selfishly works, it is going to end up in the places like China and Ghana.

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  7. This is clearly a very important issue. I’m not sure how the government should go about trying to solve it but one thing that I think go be beneficial is engineering better products that have a full life span. What i mean by that, if once the product is no longer able to be used they are still able to use it parts for other thing. So maybe it would be sent back to the vender and they would recycle it to make more of the same electronic.

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