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Electronic Wasteland

What happens to trashed electronics, and what we can do about it?

A policy analysis published Thursday in the journal Science calls our attention to something it’s much easier to turn away from: what happens to outdated computer monitors, cell phones that aren’t smart enough, cables that once powered discarded laptops, even old calculators. Much of this waste, which is largely a product of the developed world, ends up in the developing world, and the hazardous materials it contains accumulate in the food chain and in poor children’s blood. In Africa, China, and India, markets for secondhand electronics are having a terrible impact. Children in Guiyu, China have high levels of lead in their blood and swamps in Nigeria overflow with discarded electronics.

Television housings, cathode ray tubes, computers, monitors, and other imported electronic waste items not salable at the Alaba Market in Lagos, Nigeria, are dumped in this nearby swamp. Credit: Basel Action Network

So what can we do about it? The United States, one of the largest producers of electronic waste, is one of 23 member countries that has not ratified the United Nations’ Basel Convention, which would regulate the movement of hazardous electronic materials across international borders. A bill in the Senate (S. 1397) would authorize the Environmental Protection Agency to award grant money for recycling research and ask the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create a database of green electronic materials. According to the authors of the Science article, the European Union and the state of California both have complex and inconsistent waste policies, but we can still learn from them:

For example, Californians are willing to pay extra for “green” electronics products (e.g., containing fewer toxic substances, capable of being economically recycled) and to drive up to 8 miles to drop-off products for environmentally sensitive recycling. In addition, political mandates and economic incentives are key tools for engaging manufacturers,who will need to assume greater responsibility for designing electronic products that contain safer materials and are easily managed after consumers no longer want them.

However, the long-term solution, the authors suggest, is to change the way electronics are made in the first place:

Bart Gordon, Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology, said that “we need our future engineers to understand that whatever they put together will eventually have to be taken apart.”

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