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Posted May 2nd, 2011

Electronic Waste Nightmares

Why recycle your old computers, monitors, televisions, and cell phones? The long list of reasons for recycling includes helping the earth or discarding of an old item when you get a new one. It seems like the most important reason for recycling is not contributing to the two million tons of old electronics disposed in US landfills annually. Many states are banning e-waste from landfills. Chances are that Americans are not recycling their obsolete electronics to contribute to the global trade of e-waste endangering lives and the environment.

Estimates show that about 70 percent of the 40 million tons of electronic waste produced annually worldwide is sent off to China, India, and Nigeria. The number of workers in these poor towns employed by the e-waste industry reaches up to 150,000 people, each one of them paying little attention to their exposure to serious health risks.

Workers use tools and even their bare hands to retrieve metals, glass, and other useable parts. This process of extracting useful parts can have deadly consequences. By sorting and smashing through these old electronics, these workers are exposing themselves and the environment with toxic chemicals (as much as 6.5 pounds of lead dust). Harmful chemicals, including mercury, fluorine, barium, chromium, and cobalt are blamed for skin rashes and respiratory problems. Long-term health effects can include kidney and nervous system damage, weakening of the immune system, and cancer.

Upwards of 90 percent ends up in dumps that observe no environmental standards, where shredders, open fires, acid baths and broilers are used to recover gold, silver, copper and other valuable metals while spewing toxic fumes and runoff into the environment.

Many so-called recyclers are getting away with exporting harmful electronic waste. The US does forbid the exportation of monitors and televisions with cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) without permission from the importing country. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it can be as much as 10 times cheaper to export e-waste to other countries than to dispose of it in the US.

The Environmental Protection Agency does not believe that banning all exportation of electronic waste is the solution. Matt Hale, head of the EPA’s office of solid waste, says, “…Most electronics are manufactured abroad, it makes sense to recycle them abroad.” The EPA with cooperation from environmental groups, recyclers, and electronic manufacturers are trying to develop a way to certify companies that recycle electronics responsibly but there are still standards and enforcement that must be worked out.

To read the related article, “China Not Fighting Off E-Waste Nightmare,” please click here.

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