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Surprising Toxic Waste From Your Electronics

July 26, 2008 | 26,861 views

The high-end, high-tech industry that produces computers and cell phones has a dirty little secret: toxic waste. Phones and computers contain dangerous metals like lead, cadmium and mercury, which contaminate the air and water when those products are dumped.

Electronic waste, or e-waste, amounts to 20 million to 50 million tons a year worldwide. The United States is the world‘s top producer of e-waste, but sends much of it over to developing nations like China, India and Nigeria.

In the cities like the southern Chinese town of Guiyu, the poor strip the waste dumps with little protection, melting down components and breathing in poisonous fumes. What can‘t be recycled is simply dumped, turning already poisoned rivers into toxic sludge.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was established in 1989 to control the hazardous garbage flowing from rich countries to poor ones. But the United States never signed onto the treaty and some of the destination nations, such as China, allow the dumping to continue for the money it brings in.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

As much as I love technology … and all of its associated gadgets … this is one element of the industry that is hard to stomach. Americans own 3 billion electronics, and many of these are quickly discarded in favor of newer models.

The United States, which still is not able to fully recycle many of these items, does not want to deal with all of this waste, so it’s shipping it off to poor regions in China, India and Nigeria.

There the people, including children, are exposing themselves to toxic metals and fumes just to make a small profit from the dismantled waste.

Who is to blame for this massive problem? Is it you, for upgrading to the newest TV or computer? The manufacturers, for producing products that contain toxic products, and that become obsolete so quickly? Or is it the government, for not coming up with a way to recycle or reuse all of this waste?

It amazes me how quickly most Americans upgrade their cell phones. Over 1 million iPhone 3G were sold on the first weekend alone. Although it certainly has many novel features, I am perfectly happy with my 3-year-old cell phone. I tried to upgrade a few times, but always went back to my old phone.

All I need it to do is make rare phone calls and it does that well, so no need for me to change phones. Would seem to me that the best way to recycle is not to need the new gadget in the first place. So rule number one is keep your gadgets longer.

Surely the problem is due to a combination of the above factors, though, and a large part has to do with Moore’s Law. It states that computer power roughly doubles every two years, which means that state-of-the-art electronics are on the verge of obsolescence as soon as they hit the market. The world will eventually be buried in an ocean of electronics if something doesn’t change -- fast.

The Amount of Waste is Astounding

National Geographic featured a story on this very topic back in January, and in it they listed some sobering statistics:
  • An estimated 30 million to 40 million PCs will become obsolete in the next few years
  • About 25 million U.S. TVs are disposed of annually because of the upcoming switch to digital in 2009
  • 98 million cell phones were disposed of in 2005
It sounds like the environmentally conscious thing to do would be to take your old electronics to a recycling center where they can be reused, or at least disposed of safely. Currently, about 20 percent of e-waste in the United States ends up with “recyclers.”

What may shock you is that many of these recyclers simply ship your electronics to developing countries.

It’s also not surprising, then, that many products coming back into the United States from places like China are often laced with lead and other toxic metals … often the same ones used to build our outdated electronics.

National Geographic pointed out that one study actually found Chinese-made jewelry being sold in the United States contained copper and tin alloyed with lead that probably came from leaded solder used to make electronic circuit boards.

So it seems what goes around really does come around.

Is There Any Way to Safely Dispose of Electronics?

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that as of 2005, Americans had about 180 million old TVs, PCs, and other electronics sitting in their basements and attics.

But if you’d rather not turn your basement into an electronics graveyard, there are a couple of other responsible options.

The first would be to hold on to your electronic gadgets as long as possible. Don’t ditch your 1-year-old cell phone just so you can get it in a new color (you may want to ditch it for other reasons, namely your health, but that’s a story for another time), or upgrade your MP3 player just to get the hottest one on the market.

The Story of Stuff is a great video to watch to really put this into perspective.

As for the electronic items you already have, the best option right now appears to be taking them to responsible recyclers. Remember, many recyclers simply ship off your electronics to developing nations, and this includes items you leave during special “drop-off” events or pick-ups.
You really need to inquire about what’s going to happen to the electronics before you drop them off. The Basal Action Network has a great list of responsible “e-cyclers” that have signed the Electronic Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship, “the most rigorous criteria for sustainable and socially just electronics recycling.”

They have locations in much of the United States and Canada, and those in other countries may want to try out their list of recyclers who accept mail-in items.

[+] Sources and References

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