E-waste: Turning Trash Into Treasure
During a recent drop-off mission at a local Goodwill branch, I found out that they are now accepting computers for recycling - at no cost! I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that since 2004, Dell and Microsoft have partnered with Goodwill to recycle all brands of computers and entertainment products. This partnering system has reaped numerous benefits, such as providing green jobs for Goodwill employees in collection and disassembly, and diverting significant amounts of e-waste from landfills. Items are reused, refurbished or recycled, depending on their condition.
E-waste (electrical and electronic equipment) accounts for 70% of overall toxic garbage, adding to the never-ending dilemma of what to do with cell phones, TVs, computers, printers and monitors that are not big enough, fast enough, or cool enough. The United Nations estimates that 20-50 million tons of e-waste is produced globally each year, causing significant human health issues and substantial environmental concerns at the end of its lifecycle. We may, however, be able to mitigate some of the negative effects of this heavy burden and create conomic and social opportunities at the same time.
The Haves and Have-nots
Access to technology is used as an indicator of a country’s economic and social development, and digital divides clearly separate the haves from the have-nots. Developing countries, trying to close this gap, are importing both new and used electronics at an exponentially increasing rate; however, they often don’t have the infrastructure or resources to manage a system of recycling or reuse. Instead, informal entrepreneurs take over a rudimentary process of collection, dismantling and reselling, often at the expense of their health and the environment. In countries with more formalized systems, components are recycled and sometimes refurbished. Such is the case in Ghana and Nigeria, where 30,000 people are employed in the refurbishing industry.
E-waste consists of a mixture of both valuable natural resources and toxins. Recovery of gold, silver, palladium, copper, glass and indium can result in important economic gains, with the caveat that these efforts often expose untrained workers, and the environment, to toxins like mercury and lead. Open burning of cables and dumping of unusable waste can emit dioxins that travel throughout the environment and bioaccumulate. Studies in India and China at e-waste sites have shown increased concentrations of heavy metals in air, dust, soil and water, as well as in human hair samples.
Until recently, many developed countries exported their e-waste to developing countries, with shipments often containing unusable equipment. This created a public outcry in the developing countries that were left with huge hazardous waste and disposal problems. In response, the United Nations Environmental Programme, (UNEP), created the Basel Convention, with the participation of 118 countries, to control the movement and disposal of hazardous waste. It stipulates that distribution of EEE (electronics and electrical equipment) to developing countries take place only with agreement between the two countries, and certification that it is not hazardous. In other words, only usable EEE, which can be recycled or refurbished, may be exported.
Organizations Doing Good
Great things are happening around the globe with programs that benefit both local and international communities. For example:
- Fully Managed, in Vancouver, runs a Laptops for Africa program to send refurbished laptops to Zimbabwe for children and families.
- SWICO, in Switzerland, has two take-back programs (residential and commercial) that recycle all but 3% of what they collect.
- CloudBlue, based in New Jersey, helps tech companies take care of their e-waste and arranges for direct pickup and processing, ensuring that valuable metals can be reused and recycled for future electronics.
- UNIDO's Electronic Waste Program assesses a country’s current situation, pilots best-practice programs, then replicates them in other countries. They strive to build green recycling industries throughout developing countries.
- ACTT’s program in Tanzania provides jobs in computer refurbishment to street youth, and sells computers to schools and charities to bolster educational opportunities and promote IT.
Future Government Efforts
These steps will be key in addressing each country’s e-waste in the future:
- Implementing smart policies and legislation, regulating a country’s internal handling of e-waste, and stringent importing/exporting regulations
- Developing a robust, closed-loop system of collection, transportation, storage, recycling, reuse and disposal to better-manage e-waste
- Designing educational programs for communities about both the dangers and opportunities of electronic waste
- Developing an ongoing monitoring system to ensure the system is working
As an individual you can:
- Find out where you can drop off your own e-waste (and other recyclables)
- Call your local Goodwill to see which electronics they accept
- Support companies whose products are EPEAT certified, like Apple and Toshiba notebooks
- Find out which organizations, both nationally and internationally, are working on e-waste legislation, projects and solutions here.
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