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The Dirty Little Secret of the Electronic Era

| 7/10/2014 9:06:00 AM

Our Electronic Reality by Rahy Christian W

Laptops, phones, mp3 players and other electronic gadgets have become staple commodities in today’s technological era.  Our need for new and improved electronic equipment that becomes obsolete in two or three years has spawned the fastest growing waste stream: e-waste.

The Facts

In 2012 the world purchased 238.5 million televisions, 444.4 million computers and tablets and a staggering 1.75 billion cellphones. Back in 2008, Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council, estimated that in the USA alone we throw out 48 million computers and 100 million cellphones every year. In fact, according to Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, the average US cellphone has a 22 month lifecycle. All these discarded electronics add up to 5-7million tons of ewaste every year from the USA alone. The volume of this electronic waste is expected to increase by 33% by 2020.

What happens to all this obsolete technology? The more conscientious individuals may try to recycle their useless electronics instead of letting them stew in a landfill. However, this task is easier said than done because used electronics are considered hazardous waste and contain toxic components such as lead, mercury, cadmium, phosphors, arsenic, flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride. These products are known carcinogenic substances that can cause liver and kidney damage, mutations and stillbirths and a plethora of other devastating effects to our bodies when not handled and recycled properly. The inadequate dismantling and disposal of e-waste release these toxic substances into the soil and the air, infecting domestic and wild animals alike while poisoning our crops and drinking water. And the bewildering fact is that less than 20% of used electronics are recycled.

Guiyu, China

Another troubling fact is that the lethal byproducts of our electronic consumption, when one actually tries to properly recycle them, are oftentimes just dumped elsewhere. A disturbing reportage done by Scott Pelley for 60 minutes on CBS News back in 2009 provides video footage of the electronic wasteland created in Guiyu China by our failed recycling attempts. We are faced with an unfortunate reality; 80% of our “recycled electronics” actually end up exported to some roadside ditch somewhere far away.

7/11/2014 3:57:49 PM

Thank you for your comment Jim. Even though this has been a known issue for a while, and highly publicized back in 2009, it is always good to be reminded every so often of the dangers of our electronic consumption. Furthermore, some people may not be as well informed as yourself on the subject of electronic waste. As mentioned in the article ecoATM partners with recyclers that are either R2 *OR* estewards certified. As you may know the R2 certification is fully compliant with the Basel Convention, which is why both standards are great, valid certifications. As for the exporting of hazardous waste such as e-waste there is more than one side to every story. Should the exporting and dumping of this waste on developing country that do not have the facilities and safety requirements developed countries have be stopped? Absolutely. However, there are many businesses conducted around the world that export and manage this waste as responsibly as possible. This allows for business growth and opportunity in the recycling industry. The reason these certifications are so important is to certify that this business is actually conducted in a safe and responsible manner. It up to us electronic consumers to create the demand for environmentally friendly and ethical treatment of our electronic waste. Perhaps that is why ecoATM partners with recyclers that have either of these certifications.

7/11/2014 10:32:15 AM

Two important things to remember are that (i) reuse is more environmentally friendly than recycling and (ii) "recyclable" does not necessarily mean that something is in fact "recycled." As someone working in the e-cycling industry, I echo the caution to readers to make sure their electronics are being recycled responsibly - many so called "recyclers" are simply strip-mining the valuable components and then dumping the rest in landfills in the US or abroad. Certifications such as R2 and E-Stewards definitely help but it is also worth asking your electronics recycler directly about their process and where they send their components as well as what percentage of the e-"waste" is reused vs recycled vs simply shredded and scrapped. If you have any questions, you are always welcome to contact us or check out our website

7/11/2014 1:33:52 AM

Dear Camille and readers: Thank you for mentioning the Dirty Little Secret of our High Tech World that the Basel Action Network discovered in 2002 -- the wholesale dumping in developing countries of hazardous e-waste where it is recycled in disastrously primitive and toxic conditions. Thank you also for mentioning the e-Stewards program which BAN created to remedy this situation. Unfortunately your "Solution" EcoAtm does NOT agree to only use e-Stewards. Rather they agree only to use the far weaker R2 Standard which does not have provisions to prohibit the export of electronic waste. e-Stewards was created because R2 failed to adhere to international law and properly control e-Waste exports. Many journals have inferred a false equivalency between e-Stewards and R2 and nothing could be further from the truth. I am very sorry to see Mother Earth News failing to recognise the glaring difference. BAN would welcome very much if EcoATM wished to join the e-Stewards program and refuse to export e-Waste but they have steadfastly refused to do so to date. Thus it is that many phones and tablets that enter an EcoATM could find their way on a slowboat to China. Sincerely yours, Jim Puckett, Director, Basel Action Network

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