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 How about where the outdated devices end up?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.
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.
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?