Saturday, August 24, 2013

Going Green: Responsible Electronics Recycling

I revised and updated the below article, originally published on

Back-to-school season has rolled back around, and many people will be taking advantage of those "back -to-school" sales to purchase new electronics or upgrade those that are currently out of date.  Beware before you chuck your old computer, television, or cell phone into the landfill or nearest recycling facility: those seemingly innocuous electronics are the cause of devastating pollution and environmental justice issues.

Computers and other electronics contain harmful chemicals and heavy metals and should be disposed of with caution. Electronic waste, or “e-waste” has become a significant problem as old electronics constantly become outdated, broken, or replaced by newer, better versions.  Throwing old electronics in the garbage or taking them to the dump is an unsuitable option; the chemicals and heavy metals in them contaminate the environment. Recycling sounds like a good option, but what happens to your electronics once they are dropped off at a recycling location? The answer may not be what you expect.

Acres of smoldering computer in Africa - Photo Credit:

Typically, once the recycling center has removed all of the reusable parts from your recycled electronics, the remnants will be loaded up and shipped overseas to poorer countries, commonly to areas in China or Africa. There, the remnants are manually taken apart and burned in order to remove trace amounts of valuable metals that can then be resold. This manual processing endangers the health of the workers, who often work with no safety equipment and have little knowledge of the dangers they face. Much of this work is done out in the open, so the toxic chemicals saturate the soil in the village, consequently leaching into the local water supply. Burning the electronics to extract metals causes the toxic material to become airborne—thus the people in these regions are suffering with toxics in the ground they walk on, the water they drink, and the air they breathe.

The Story of Stuff has a great video that illustrates the e-waste issue from production of electronics through their eventual disposal, and points to the "designed for the dump" mentality that leads to our electronics becoming obsolete or breaking, and ultimately needing to be replaced.

There are a few organizations based right here in Seattle that are leading the way in combating the e-waste issue: 

The Basel Action Network (BAN) is a Seattle-based nonprofit organization working internationally to fight the environmental and social justice problems caused by e-waste. They have also implemented a groundbreaking certification program, whereby recycling facilities can become "E-Steward" certified by complying with responsible recycling practices: "no disposal in landfills or incinerators, no prison labor, and no export to poor communities".  Businesses can also sign on to become "E-Steward Enterprises" that have made a commitment to recycle all of their electronics using only "E-Steward" certified recycling facilities.  Companies such as Bank of America, Capital One, and Boeing have signed onto this commitment.

Zero Waste Washington is another non-profit organization based in Seattle, and campaigns for producer responsibility and zero waste in regard to several different issues, including the issue of e-waste.  Along with other organizations, Zero Waste Washington helped push through tough recycling legislation that lead to the creation of E-Cycle Washington, a program whereby producers of electronics are required to fund a state-wide recycling/take-back program.  Since it started on January 1st, 2009, this Dept. of Ecology-administered program has recycled over 190 million pounds of electronics!  With over 200 locations statewide, E-Cycle Washington makes it easy to recycle your electronics responsibly.

If you're like me and are absolutely sickened by the thought of poisoning the environment and endangering the health of our fellow human beings for the sake of a new computer, fear not: a little diligence and extra effort on your part can ensure this does not happen:
  • Buy less: Do you really need to have the newest and best electronics? Use your electronics as long as possible, and repair them when you can.
  •  Be an educated consumer: Know what you're buying, where it came from, and where it ultimately ends up after it reaches the end of its useful life.  Ask questions and take every opportunity to demand that electronics manufacturers give us better, greener, longer-lasting products!

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