The Environmental Injustice of Electronic Waste

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By Michelle Atkin

An increasing number of electronic devices continue to escalate the number that are disposed of each year – in 2012 the United States produced 3.4 million tons of electronic waste! Discarded phones, tablets, computers, televisions and even washers, dryers and refrigerators are an enormous problem and only 1 million tons are recycled. Anything disposed of with an electrical component is considered e-waste and the United Nations estimates that 20-50 million tons are produced around the world each year.

The U.S. disposes of 25 million TVs, 47.5 million computers and 100 million cell phones each year. If we recycled this quantity of cell phones alone, 3500 pounds of copper, 77,200 pounds of silver, 7500 pounds of gold and 3300 pounds of palladium could be salvaged.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s reports show an increase in recycling from 30.6% in 2012 to 40.4% in 2013, potentially in response to their Sustainable Materials Management Electronics Challenge.

In order to safely process e-waste, it costs a developed nation approximately $2500 per ton; however, some developing countries accept imports for as little as $3 per ton. Unfortunately, they do not have the means to properly handle these materials, yet the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia continue to ship e-waste to vulnerable countries.

Public health and environmental concerns stem from open-air burning and acid baths used to recover valuable components from electronic equipment. The most greatly impacted population is children (as young as five to 18), sent by their parents to make a couple of dollars by burning the plastic coatings off copper wires for example, often with their bare hands.

The toxic fumes and dust inhaled during hazardous retrieval and massive plastic scrap yard fires (to reduce volume) contain lead, phthalates and chlorinated dioxins. The poor air quality has a detrimental effect on nearby food markets and deteriorates the water quality of the area rivers, lagoons and even the ocean.

Jim Puckett reminds us, “Wherever we live, we must realize that when we sweep things out of our lives and throw them away… they don’t ever disappear, as we might like to believe. We must know that ‘away’ is in fact a place… likely to be somewhere where people are impoverished, disenfranchised, powerless and too desperate to be able to resist the poison for the realities of their poverty. ‘Away’ is likely to be a place where people and environments will suffer for our carelessness, our ignorance or indifference.” As a founder of the Basal Action Network non-profit, they focus on confronting the global environmental injustice and economic inefficiency of toxic trade and its devastating impacts.

To learn more about the problem of e-waste, visit EPA’s web page here. Or to learn what you can do to help, visit Electronics Take Back Coalition.

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