How to Safely Dump Your Tech Trash
Allison Ford | Divine Caroline
November 10, 2010
During the holidays this year, many lucky folks will be treated to new iPods, computers, televisions, cameras, and electronic gadgets and gewgaws. But all that consumer buying power and technical innovation has led to an unimagined side effect: millions of tons of electronic waste generated by our constant need for newer, better, and upgraded gear.
The EPA reports that two million tons of electronic garbage ends up in American landfills every year, about six times as much as what gets recycled. Luckily, the movement to recycle old computers and tech trash is increasing, and many retail stores offer recycling opportunities for old, outdated, or broken models. Every piece of e-waste that gets recycled is one less piece of waste that ends up in our landfills. Unfortunately, although many consumers believe that they’re doing the right thing and helping the environment by dropping off their old devices for repurposing, the truth is that what happens to the devices afterwards is often far from environmentally friendly.
It’s important for e-waste to be recycled properly because electronics contain heavy metals that can cause harm to humans and the environment. Older computer monitors contain up to seven pounds of lead. Old televisions contain cathode ray tubes, which are under enormous pressure and can explode if not handled correctly. Electronics also contain potentially hazardous amounts of PCBs, PVCs, cadmium, copper, beryllium, dioxins, gold, and other heavy metals. When e-waste ends up in landfills, these chemicals leach into the soil, contaminating the groundwater and causing cancers, kidney disease, endocrine disorders, tumors, and other illnesses.
Recycling is obviously the better option, but it’s not as foolproof as it may seem. When a consumer drops off an old computer or device for recycling, the item is taken to a recycling facility where it’s broken down into its component parts. In America, these facilities have adequate safety protocols, including masks, ventilation systems, and gloves to prevent workers from inhaling harmful fumes or handling hazardous wastes. They also have waste management standards that prevent runoff from contaminating the land or surrounding water, and the workers are paid a livable wage. The problem is that most of our e-waste doesn’t go to one of these top-of-the-line American facilities; it goes to developing nations, where recyclers operate without any of those human or environmental safety protections.
Greenpeace estimates that between 50 and 80 percent of e-waste is eventually sent out of the country, and many American recycling companies ship e-waste to developing nations, where labor is cheaper and laws about disposal and safety are laxer. Much of it goes to India, Ghana, and Hong Kong, but the undisputed world capital of technological trash is the southern Chinese city of Guiyu.
Guiyu, in Guangdong Province, receives more e-waste than any other site on earth. The recycling companies located there employ men, women, and even children to harvest the metals and valuable components of electronics so that they can be resold. In Guiyu, as in many e-waste hubs around Asia and Africa, workers work without masks or adequate skin protection in small, poorly ventilated workshops using acid to burn plastics and metals over open fires. Waste and ash is released into the air and dumped into local water systems or the ocean. Because of the lack of protection for the workers and the environment, Guiyu has become one of the most polluted places on Earth. According to a report from Shantou University, the air in the city has the world’s highest levels of carcinogenic dioxins, women are six times more likely to experience miscarriages there, and 70 percent of the city’s children have hazardous levels of lead in their blood.