How many electronics do you have at home? The average American household owns about 24 electronics and spends more than $1,100 a year on these products, according to a press release from the Consumer Electronics Association. Electronics include televisions, cell phones, computers, DVD players, MP3 players, microwaves, small appliances, and even, clock radios. The newest iPhone version may arrive in less than a couple of months, more televisions are switching to LED displays and every day more than 300,000 smartphones are sold. It’s amazing!

Regardless, consumers continue to buy the newest and fastest electronic like its going out of style….wait, because it is. A concept called, “designed for the dump,” as defined by The Story of Stuff. Electronics become obsolete so quickly that rather than repair or update what you own, it’s cheaper to buy it new. By 2007, more than 40 million computers became obsolete, no one knew really what to do with these and then stockpiling became an issue. A great informative, entertaining video called The Story of Stuff gives perspective to this issue of waste and electronics. I must admit that we are still the proud owners of iPod minis, which Apple no longer makes, but they still work and eventually could be sold to the Smithsonian!

So with this issue of electronic waste came the process of electronic recycling. Some manufacturers offered trade-in opportunities to consumers. Municipalities hosted e-waste recycling collection events for businesses, schools, and residents.

BUT, do you really know what happens to some of the e-waste that you think was recycled?

Unfortunately, the problem with e-waste recycling is that there is always that chance that it doesn’t get recycled. It has been known to be easier and more profitable to export e-waste to less developed countries, such as Ghana, India and China. The e-waste gets dumped into communities, where workers use primitive techniques to extract valuable metals. The techniques are called cooking circuit boards and acid burning. The rest of the electronic item, which includes glass and plastic and toxins, is simply burned in the backyard. Companies that claim to “recycle” simply shoved everything into a shipping container and send it off to cheap labor markets. Those companies weren’t willing to invest into high tech equipment of their own to truly recycle properly.

An article from USA Today in 2002 first describes the true result from e-waste recycling and it references a report from 2002 by the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, “Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia.” The report says some in the industry estimate that as much as 50% to 80% of the United States’ electronic waste that is collected in the name of recycling actually gets shipped out of the country.

Here is a video from PBS that really puts this issue into perspective. Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground – the area is deemed to have one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world.

Electronics along the water at Accra, Ghana. ©2009 Basel Action Network (BAN)
Electronics in Nigeria. ©2005 Basel Action Network (BAN)

It is estimated that 160-210 million pounds of e-waste are exported every year, which is enough to fill 4,500 shipping containers. Human and environmental health is at risk with such inhumane and disrespectful activities. According to a study conducted by universities in Hong Kong, about 80 percent of the children in Guiyu, China already have high levels of lead present in their blood stream. E-waste, if not handled properly, causes severe pollution of water, soil and air. These dangerous exports contribute a global threat to environmental and human health problems. Exporting electronics is not widely understood or examined by the general public, who commonly believe they are recycling properly.

Harvesting circuit boards in Taizhou, China. ©2006 Basel Action Network (BAN)

So what can YOU do? Where do YOU start? The first is be aware of this topic and be responsible for where you recycle. Due-diligence is key to ensure that downstream facilities and operations use proper and environmentally secure practices.

If you are planning to purchase new electronics, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I really need this now?
  2. Do I really want to spend money on this?
  3. Can I update or repair what I have?
  4. If I do need it, is there a way to recycle the old electronic item, properly and without exporting?
  5. If it is recycled, where does it go after collection?

The Basel Action Network created an e-Stewards Program to certify companies that recycle electronics. Of course, the most vital criteria, the company CAN NOT export any of the e-waste it accepts to recycle. To view the list of certified e-waste recyclers that will not export, visit the Basel Action Network e-Stewards Program website.

The South Carolina state law of e-waste recycling, which went into effect on July 1, 2011, provides a window of opportunity for the obsolete electronics to be removed from storage and recycled properly through a state contracted company called, Creative Recycling Systems, Inc. from Florida. The Horry County Solid Waste Authority (SWA) allows residents to recycle their electronics free of charge at any of the recycling centers in the county. However, businesses that wish to recycle electronics must either pay a tipping fee to the SWA or contact Creative Recycling Systems, Inc. Thankfully, Creative Recycling Systems, Inc. is listed as a certified recycler of electronics with the e-Stewards program.

The issue of e-waste recycling and exporting was the topic of my final research paper for my Master of Applied Science  in Environmental Policy and Management from the University of Denver in 2011. If you wish to watch my presentation, here it is: http://vimeo.com/27390149  – I apologize in advance for any mispronunciation. This post is in honor of my commencement, which took place on Friday, August 12 at 8:30 a.m. at Carnegie Green at the University of Denver.

the author

Originally from Virginia, Jennifer C. Sellers is passionate about sustainability and conservation in South Carolina and throughout the world. She earned her BA in English from Coastal Carolina University and her MAS in Environmental Policy and Management from the University of Denver. She is a university sustainability coordinator that implements programs and teaches people about going green and being sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @MyGreenGlasses

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