Thursday, December 4, 2014

U.S. hardly "leads" in e-waste responsibility

When I was a kid, electronic gadgets were usually just the television box or a transistor radio. There were no “personal” computers or “smart” phones, no iPods or iPads or even e-readers. There was no e-junk to throw away every year to be replaced by the latest, greatest model.  Phonographs worked the same way as they did 20 years earlier.

But times have changed, as has the pace of consumer electronic advancement—as well as its less appealing consequences. Today, according to a recent report in Newsweek, by 2012 “the world amassed almost 49 million metric tons of e-waste, including everything from last generation cellphones and laptops to televisions and washing machines. The largest contributor, the United States, supplied nearly 66 pounds of e-waste per person that year. And the trend is only growing. One study, conducted by a United Nations partner organization, projects that this number will rise to 65.4 million metric tons by 2017. As the amount of e-waste dramatically increases, solutions for proper disposal have lagged considerably behind.”

I admit that I’ve generated some e-waste myself in my lifetime, but certainly nowhere near the per-person average; a couple of AAA batteries every few months is more typical. When I was an Apple fan, there was always a market for reselling my old Mac computers, so I never junked one myself. Not so much with PCs; I’ve kept all of my old PC laptops, of which only the sub-size models no longer function. Many people apparently do keep their old computers in the basement, attic or closet; partly this is because the old gear might come in handy sometime if it actually still lights up, or because you can’t just throw them away in the garbage.

You might, of course, take them to a recycle company, but they usually charge you (instead of paying you) to take an unsellable model off your hands. Some recyclers do what they claim—to a point. They may take the gadgetry and separate the parts according to similarities in the material they comprise for eventual sale individually as parts, or to be melted down and reused for other processes. But some electronic gadgets are ”refurbished” for sale, and from what I can tell from a trip to one of the local PC recyclers, they can sit for a long, long time before they are finally discarded to make way for “new” junk. 

The old junk has to go somewhere. Most e-waste—increasingly composed of now “dumb” smart phones—are consuming landfills, releasing a wide array of toxic chemicals and metals. Third World countries have increasingly become the depository for such waste—much of it euphemistically referred to as “aid” for those in want and left behind technologically, but mostly it is just junk that is useless in real world applications, and mostly end-up where it would have had it stayed in the country of origin—and if not in fetid landfills, to be “recycled” by the locals in their own way.

It is expected to hear that African countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Liberia are “infamous” for their e-waste disaster zones.  Impoverished youths can be seen carting off old, unsold computer hardware to dump sites where they burn them for copper and other saleable metals. For many, this is the only livelihood that is open to them. Since there are no (enforced) regulations or recycle plants offering safe  employment opportunities, health awareness is predictably of lesser concern. These youths face a future of a wide array of illnesses from exposure to sometimes deadly chemical compounds used in electronic manufacture.

But Africa is not the only region that is a tragic wasteland of toxic e-waste.  In  India, a whole of army of “recyclers” in cities like Delhi throw electronic devices of any sort into fire pits and melt them down for nothing but a chance encounter with gold and copper. According to an article in US News and World Report, “The soil in both Loni and Mandoli contains high levels of heavy metals and other contaminants. Soil samples from both regions contained lead, with the highest level in Loni coming in at almost 147 times the control sample. Drinking water has also been contaminated, the study found, with observable amounts of toxic metals. One sample in each region even contained mercury – 710 times the Indian standard limit in Mandoli, and about 20 times the limit in Loni.”

Another place is, not surprisingly, is China. According to PC World, “If you want to see where your old electronics go to die, take a trip to Guiyu. For two decades, PCs, phones and other electronics have been shipped to this town on the southeast coast of China, where locals in thousands of small workshops pull them apart with buzz saws and pliers to extract the valuable components inside…By all accounts, it’s a toxic nightmare. Historically, the recycling has been done with little regard for health or safety, and toxic substances routinely leak into the air and water. No wonder it’s been called one of the most poisonous towns on earth.” The magazine does note, however, that things are “improving” there, although some of the more dangerous practices have merely moved off to non-residential areas.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the U.S. is one of the worst offenders in exporting its e-waste to impoverished countries seeking “opportunities” for their people. But the UN recognized the potential health nightmare and passed the Basel Convention in 1989, banning the trade in toxic e-waste; over 180 countries signed on to the agreement. Although the U.S. did so as well, it was never ratified by Congress, and it is one of only a handful of countries that do not abide by the agreement. Predictably, those who ignore the treaty were the worst offenders to begin with. In fact, the U.S. State Department claims that moving otherwise useless “refurbished” electronics “does not constitute movement of waste, and thus is not impacted by the Convention or its procedures.” 

The only long-term solution to e-waste is massive recycling, but this hardly seems likely given the lack of the will to do so. The According to the Economist, “The trouble is that, even with respectable collection centres, there is no guarantee that e-waste will be processed responsibly downstream. What little is known about recycling hazardous waste in America, for instance, suggests that only 15-20% is actually recycled; the rest gets incinerated or buried in landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There is no evidence to suggest other countries are any better.

The Economist also notes that the U.S. can hardly be considered a “leader” in responsible recycling: “With few audits undertaken, even the EPA has to rely on assumptions and guesswork. Most observers agree that only 20% or so of the 9m tonnes of e-waste collected each year in America is processed domestically—either by reputable firms under controlled conditions, or by prison inmates with few, if any, handling requirements. In other words, the bulk of the waste—up to 80% by weight—gets exported to places in Asia and Africa where health and safety regulations are less onerous.”

So much for “moral” or “ethical” posturing in this business.

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