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Can 'E-Waste' Be Recycled?

Some people call it "e-waste". Others refer to it as "techno-trash." It's the latest problem faced by waste management officials in dozens of industrialized countries: What to do with all the cell phones, video games, and computers that become out-dated within months of being purchased. Local officials across the United States think they've found the answer - recycling. But much of the e-waste that American consumers think is being recycled in a safe and environmentally sound manner, isn't.

Every weekday morning, millions of Americans hear the sound of a computer, as it's booting up. But every weekday morning, there are also millions of computers that don't make this sound, because they're tucked away in closets or attics, having been replaced by newer models.

According to Jim Puckett, with the environmental watchdog group, Basel Action Network, by 2004, there will be 315 million obsolete computers in the United States. All of them are full of toxic materials like mercury, lead, and cadmium. "That's a phenomenal amount of waste, and because of this rapid obsolescence, and the fact that they're very toxic at the same time, it's become the biggest waste crisis we have, right now today," says Mr. Puckett.

The average home computer has a life-span of about two years, before it's too slow, or has a memory capacity that's too small to handle the latest software. Cell phones, too, are becoming obsolete at an increasingly rapid rate. It's often easier and cheaper to buy a new computer or phone, than it is to upgrade an older one, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are more than three million tons of e-waste sitting in America's landfills.

Several states recently banned the out-dated equipment from their facilities, because of the hazardous materials within the machines. And so consumers and local officials have turned to what they think is an environmentally friendly alternative to storing the e-waste in a closet - recycling. But 80 percent of the techno-trash sent to U.S. recyclers isn't actually dismantled here.

Jim Puckett says U.S. environmental laws make the process very expensive, and so instead, the waste is shipped to Asia, specifically, to China, where few laws regulate the handling of hazardous materials. "We saw many, many hundreds of women, whose sole task was to sit over griddles, where they would heat up the circuit boards, and the lead-tin solders would vaporize and melt, and they would pluck off the chips, but they're breathing constantly the lead solder from this," he says. "And in fact the whole village area is so contaminated with lead, we found sediment and water levels of lead three hundred times the ordinary standard of what's considered a hazardous waste in the sediment in a country like the Netherlands, for example."

Earlier this year, the Basel Action Network published a report on electronic waste that was very critical of both Washington and Beijing. The United States is the only industrialized nation that hasn't signed the Basel Convention, which, since 1998, has prohibited the export of e-waste, even for the purposes of recycling.

The ban was adopted by 135 other nations, precisely because many developing countries like China don't regulate how the waste is dismantled. But Mike Shapiro of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says this isn't the case with all of the countries accepting e-waste, and that's one of the reasons the United States hasn't agreed to a total ban. "For those countries that are capable of managing the materials in an environmentally sound manner, and getting economic benefits out of recycling, and returning that material to productive use, it would place an arbitrary bar on their ability to do so," he says.

Mr. Shapiro says for now, the American government prefers to cultivate what he calls a "sense of environmental responsibility" among companies that manufacture electronics, and those that ship e-waste overseas to be recycled. That's a naďve and ineffective approach, according to Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network. But Mr. Puckett says many American-based companies will have to become more responsible, if legislation being considered by the European Union passes. That legislation would ban lead from any electronic equipment sold in Europe, beginning in 2006. It would also require manufacturers to finance a recycling infrastructure for e-waste in Europeand that, in turn, would give companies an incentive to make their products more upgradeable.

Mr. Puckett says changes made for the European market will have an impact on what gets sold in the United States. "One of the advantages of globalization is that they're going to have to think twice about having a whole new product line for every continent on earth, and perhaps every country," he says. "And so that will force industry which has to deal on a global basis with really coming to grips with the question of 'Well, if we have to make a product for the European market that's going to meet this standard, we'd might as well do it globally.'"

The legislation in Europe is expected to pass. Representatives of the American Electronics Association say they're prepared to accept the mandated changes, but warn that cell phones and computers will become much more expensive. Meanwhile, the Basel Action Network is putting together a list of American-based recycling companies that have pledged not to sell e-waste to any company that doesn't protect its workers from exposure to toxic materials. The organization hopes to publish that list before the end of the year.