Electronic Waste

July 11th, 2013

Buried Video Games

Earlier this summer, a company announced plans to dig up millions of video games supposedly buried in the New Mexico desert. Gaming lore held that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 earned such scorn that, in 1983, the company dumped 3.5 million unsold copies in a landfill near Alamogordo, covering them in concrete. But according to Marty Goldberg, coauthor of a book about Atari, “The dump there was simply a clearing out of Atari’s Texas manufacturing plant as it transitioned to automated production methods and a focus on personal computer manufacturing. . . . The unused cartridge stock of a group of titles (not just E.T.), console parts, and computer parts were all dumped.”

While the funny story of games so bad they were buried in shame is mostly mythical, the problems associated with managing electronic waste, or “e-waste,” are real. E-waste is much more than video games. TV’s, cell phones, personal computers (and their peripherals, from monitors to mouses), laptops, PDA’s (personal data assistants), and more are entering the world’s solid waste stream at a rapid pace—and the consequences are no laughing matter.

An Increase in E-waste

How many electronic devices do you own? The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) reports that the average American household contains 24 electronic products. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that, combining residential, commercial, and institutional purchasers, “438 million electronic products were sold in 2009, which represents a doubling of sales from 1997, driven by a nine-fold increase in mobile device sales.”

Americans aren’t the only ones buying electronics. Manufacturers shipped 305.8 million computers worldwide in 2009; and by the end of 2008, more than four billion people around the world used mobile phones. The world is wired, plugged in, and logged on as never before.

One major reason consumer electronics sell so briskly is their short lifespan. Consider PC’s. The United Nations Environment Programme information office estimates “there are over a billion personal computers in the world. . . . In developed countries these have an average life span of only 2 years. In the United States alone there are over 300 million obsolete computers.” Or think about smartphones. One study found Americans replace them, on average, after just a year and nine months, “far faster than consumers in any other country.”

All those discarded devices must go somewhere. The Economist reports that e-waste “is growing at three times the rate of other kinds of rubbish,” and one 2011 study anticipates “the volume and weight of global e-scrap will more than double in the next 15 years.” In 2008, the United States alone generated 3.16 million tons of e-waste—enough to fill 15,000 football fields six feet deep.

An Untapped “Treasure Trove”?

Though it’s trash, e-waste isn’t worthless. As The Economist points out, “Processors, chips and connecting pins . . . contain seams of silver, gold and palladium; these ‘deposits’ are 40 to 50 times richer than dug-up ores.” E-waste could be, as the US Geological Survey (USGS) suggests, “a treasure trove of valuable metals.” The USGS calculates the average cell phone, for example, contains about 3.5 cents worth of copper, 6 cents worth of silver, and just over 40 cents worth of gold. While the amount of metals contained in each cell phone is small, when a large number of those phones become obsolete, “the quantity and value of the metals contained in [them] become significant.”

Options for the proper recycling of e-waste exist; but in 2009, only 17.7 percent of e-waste went to recyclers. Most is dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators. Since e-waste contains mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and other dangerous substances, it can pose serious environmental hazards. For instance, in 2011, scientists studied air samples from a major Chinese e-waste dismantling complex. They found organic pollutants and heavy metals accumulating in workers’ lung cells, as well as a protein that the body produces to combat cellular damage.

A Toxic Trade

Open-air disassembly of electronics isn’t recommended, but it’s prevalent because much “recycling” occurs where high-tech ability to manage e-waste properly isn’t in place. Greenpeace International explains that a now-sprawling international trade began in the 1990’s when “governments in the EU, Japan and some US states set up e-waste ‘recycling’ systems” without “the capacity to deal with the sheer quantity . . . or with its hazardous nature. Therefore, they began exporting the problem to developing countries where laws to protect workers and the environment are inadequate or not enforced.”

According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, roughly 50–80 percent of American e-waste is exported to developing nations. If the thousands of shipping containers it fills were stacked, “they’d reach 8 miles high— higher than Mt. Everest, or commercial flights.”

ScienceDaily reports that “China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries,” despite having legally banned such imports. In Guiyu in southern China, 100,000 people work with e-waste. “Standard practice,” reports The Economist, “is to separate the plastic by boiling circuit boards on stoves, and then leach the metals with acid. Workers risk burns, inhaling fumes and poisoning from lead and other carcinogens. A study by the nearby Shantou University found high miscarriage rates in local women.”

Similar work goes on elsewhere, undertaken by society’s most vulnerable members. “In far-flung, mostly impoverished places,” writes Leyla Acaroglu in The New York Times, “children pile e-waste into giant mountains and burn it so they can extract the metals . . . for only a few dollars. In India, young boys smash computer batteries with mallets to recover cadmium, toxic flecks of which cover their hands and feet as they work.”

Dr. Kwei Quartey, a physician in Ghana, points out, “Children anywhere in the world are more vulnerable to any poison, contaminant or toxin because of their rapidly developing organs. . . . Children have about eight times the risk of adults when exposed to metal-laden dust, and blood measurements in children living around e-waste sites have shown high levels of cadmium and lead.” Quartey has seen children’s living conditions firsthand in the e-waste-filled slum of Agbogbloshie, outside Accra. “The smell alone will drive all but the most desperate away,” he says, “but many are so desperate they persevere despite the obvious dangers. It is a very tough thing to witness.”

Finding Ways Forward

Stopping trade in e-waste altogether, even if possible, wouldn’t necessarily be preferable. “The sheer number of people engaged in informal recycling,” says Ghanaian researcher Atiemo Sampson, “makes it increasingly unthinkable politically to eject them. Any solution must recognize their role and focus on improving health, safety and environmental standards.”

Unfortunately, political will for cleaning up the e-waste trade sometimes seems lacking. In 1989, the international community adopted the Basel Convention, which, according to University of Richmond law professor Noah Sachs, “does not ban the waste trade but instead attempts to manage” it. Under its provisions, “the exporting country cannot just turn a blind eye to environmental hazards once the waste leaves its shores. . . . The United States was actively involved in the negotiation of the Convention and signed the treaty” but “cannot ratify the Convention until Congress passes implementing legislation.” In 2011, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act—designed, says Acaroglu, “to stop dumping e-waste on the world’s poorest nations and thus to provide an incentive for safer waste management in our own country”—died in committee. (As of April 1, 2013, a new version of the bill had 28 cosponsors.)

Consumers, however, needn’t wait on legislators to take action. Acaroglu suggests putting “pressure on manufacturers to design electronics with end-of-product-life issues in mind”—for example, designing cell phones for easier disassembly that would render the “crude recycling techniques like those deployed by Ghanaian children” unnecessary.

Acaroglu also asks, “What if we held on to our gadgets longer and repaired, rather than replaced them?” Consumers don’t have to yield to the allure of what Jeffrey Kluger, writing for Time, calls “Shiny New Things,” because they “quickly become Familiar Old Things, and nothing seems so discardable as a poky device that no longer runs the latest apps or includes the coolest features.” Some electronic devices are only obsolete if consumer demand makes them so. Small changes in consumer thinking and spending in the developed world might just lead to big changes for our neighbors in the developing world who are currently burdened with our high-tech trash.

This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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