Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Don't recycle that computer or cell phone!

Green is in. The big electronic box stores all offer to take your used electronic equipment for recycling. Unsuspecting consumers congratulate them for their forward looking stance. But what do they do with all this recycled material?
According to various estimates, 70% of discarded electronic equipment ends up in landfills. The rest is supposedly recycled. According to some estimates 80% of recycled material – a significant portion of it generated in the United States – is dumped in large containers to be shipped to low-wage countries. There, in China, Vietnam, and India or Ghana, recycling is done largely by children and women.
Recycling takes components of machines or appliance that have stopped functioning to convert them into raw materials for other products. Recycling a computer would involve salvaging the plastic and metal covers to be used in the production of other plastic or metal products. But that is not what happens when electronics are being "recycled."
The basic process consists of burning or "cooking" used computer components in order to melt the metals contained in old computer boards – metals like gold, copper, lead. These metals can bring in a bit of money. The plastic in the machines is worthless and hence is simply burned. The bulk of electronic waste is not being recycled at all but is being burned to be converted into toxic ash or gases polluting the atmosphere that are bound to sicken the adults doing the work.

It seriously affects the growth of today's children, who are a significant portion of the recycling workforce, and future children women, who work in recycling, will give birth to. There is no question that these backyard recycling operations not only do not really recycle, but do tremendous harm to the people who make a meager living there. Often they are undertaken in large urban settlements, for instance in Accra, Ghana, where the pollution injures large numbers of people.
It is illegal to ship electronic waste abroad from the US but the domestic recyclers circumvent those prescriptions by labeling used computers, cell phones, – with bitter irony--etc. as "charitable donations."
There exist some modern recycling plants which undertake this hazardous job in ways that are environmentally safe. One of those is in India where, with the rising prosperity, the problem of electronic waste takes on monumental proportions. Another such plant is located outside Toronto. It is not clear what percentage of electronic waste these high-tech plants process. The problem clearly is that recycling electronic components without, frankly, killing people is expensive. And no one seems to want to pay the price of building the requisite plants. (I must clearly include myself in that.)
Upgrading our electronic gadgets is very tempting. But before you do that you have to ask yourself what will happen to your discarded computers, cell phones or tablets.