The Dangers of Discarded Technology - Obsolete Week


By Nicole Stinson

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While you have been busy upgrading to latest versions of smartphones, tablets, and laptops, the environment has been forced to deal with discarded technology in the millions of tons. Often still in a useable condition, the chemicals from these devices are now polluting local communities.

The amount we produce is astounding, President of the Earth Day Network, Kathleen Rogers tells BTR. America produces about 50 million metric tons, only 25 percent of which is recycled, with the remainder ending up in landfills.

“Globally it is much worse,” she says. “The US and the rest of the world just dump it wherever they can.”

Other experts, like Tom Dowdall, a green electronics campaigner for Greenpeace International and Katherine Westervelt, the e-Waste Project Coordinator at the Basel Action Network, believe the global amount is incalculable and describe the situation as an ocean of electronic waste or e-waste.

“It’s very difficult to quantify the values,” Westervelt explains. “Now not only are the developed countries [generating] huge amounts of e-waste but also the developing countries like India and China, which are creating their own huge volumes.”

Additionally, a lot of e-waste activity is undocumented in these countries since the trade and disposal of it is illegal, Dowdall tells BTR.

A large part of the problem is how much technology individuals around the world own. With cellphones alone, the numbers are expected to exceed the world’s population by the end of the year according to research by The International Telecommunications Union. That is over 7 billion cellphones being actively used and then eventually discarded.

“When you look at the developing countries, [the numbers] are ridiculous,” Rogers says. “Russia has two times their population as well as countries like Brazil and Indonesia.”

Many people like to have more than a single phone, one for personal use and another for work.

When you combine these cellphone figures with the ownership and disposal of other electronic material, it is no surprise that the amount of e-waste is rapidly increasing.

“Ten years ago you were lucky if you even had a phone and you certainly didn’t throw it away each year,” Rogers adds. “Now they are planned obsolescence.”

Marketing new models of the same technology is a huge contributing factor to planned obsolescence, Dowdall explains.

“Today’s electronics are fashion items,” he says. What a lot of consumers do not realize is that each time they upgrade to the latest version and dispose of the older one that they are basically putting human lives and the environment at risk.

Disposed electronic devices are often dumped into local landfills or sold to developing nations to be processed. A report released by the UN last year found China struggling with the amount of e-waste the country was receiving each year.

Nigeria, Ghana, India, and Sudan are other developing nations that have been burdened with the world’s e-waste.

According to Ted Smith, Chair of the Electronics Take Back Coalition, Americans are the biggest culprits in some ways.

“We purchase a huge amount of electronic equipment and the US is one of the only major industrious countries in the world that has failed to sign the Basil Convention,” he tells BTR.

One of the reasons the US has avoided ratifying this treaty, Smith explains, is that the exporting of e-waste to other countries has been both a cheaper and easier alternative for the US. Unbeknown to consumers, many companies that claim to be recycling these devices are also exporting them to developing nations to be processed. “Some of them are very sleazy companies,” he adds.

Well aware of the risks, he says, these companies send old technology to places like China to have their precious metals stripped in ways that would be illegal in America.

“In the developing world, they will burn the plastic casing to get to those metals which causes a number of environmental and health problems,” Smith explains.

These health problems are the result of toxins such as many dioxins and furans, which are released into the air when plastic is burnt. Rogers clarifies that many of the heavy metals present in electronics such as mercury, cadmium, and lead seep into the soil because landfills in developing countries are not lined like they are in the US.

“It is not just causing long-term health hazards but immediate effects to people living in these communities,” Smith says. “Children nearby are coming down with serious diseases and are being born with serious health and developmental problems.”

Afua Hirsch, a writer for The Guardian, described this toxic environment vividly after a visit to a Ghanaian e-waste site. There were “huge plumes of foul-smelling smoke,” she wrote. “The fumes are head-pounding, but the men, women, and children weaving in and out of the fires seem oblivious.”

Environmentalists believe that the safe and responsible disposal of e-waste should be placed on electronic manufacturers.

Rogers challenges these companies: “If they are going to charge me hundreds of dollars for their product, they need to learn to take care of it.”

“Frankly, if [electronic manufacturers] are smart enough to develop an Apple phone, they should be smart enough to develop a phone that is not going to pollute our lives,” she adds. “Maybe something biodegradable?”

Governments are also accountable. She explains of the limited recycling options available in the US, many are difficult to use or find. In her local county of Montgomery, Pennsylvania they have a technology-recycling program that occurs every two months at the local high school. The lines are often a mile long, weaving through the neighborhood, and they do not accept all devices.

“They wouldn’t take my chords or my old TV,” she states.

Even as the President of the Earth Day Network and a passionate recycler, Rogers says that she can sympathize with individuals who do not responsibly dispose of their old technology. “It’s very difficult. Even I hate doing it and it’s my job. We need to make it easier.”

The United States Environmental Protection Agency does provide a list of places that recycle electronics. As part of Katherine Westervelt’s E-Steward project, the Basel Action Network lists certified drop-off locations as well.

“There are so many big problems in the world like the slaughtering of tigers in Taiwan or the cancer-causing pollution in Beijing that it is easy to forget about recycling,” Rogers concludes. “But e-waste, believe it or not, is going to cause real, long-term damage to out water systems and our children’s health. We really have to deal with it.”