The E-Waste Problem
The 21st century introduced new technology that allows people across the planet to communicate with one another more seamlessly and inexpensively than ever. This technological success, however, also brought with it new environmental concerns that must be addressed aggressively and consistently.
The world produced nearly 45 million metric tons of e-waste (electronic devices and the components thereof) in 2016, according to a report by United Nations University. That is up from 33.8 million metric tons in 2010, and the number is projected to reach 49.8 million by the end of 2018. The United States produced 7.1 million metric tons of e-waste in 2014, accounting for 17% of all e-waste produced in the world that year.
The primary issue surrounding e-waste is its potential to contaminate air, soil, and water due to improper disposal. U.S. government is steadily improving its efforts to ensure our precious resources are not exposed to toxic elements, particularly lead and chromium, contained in e-waste. It’s now a matter of awareness and cooperation to keep the efforts moving forward.
The Basel Action Network, based in Seattle, concluded a two-year study that revealed some dark secrets about domestic e-waste recycling. The organization, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, placed tracking devices in 200 retired TVs, VCRs, smartphones, and other electronics. The device were dropped off at companies and nonprofits across the country that advertised themselves as “environmentally-friendly recyclers”
The study concluded that one-third of the devices ended up in foreign countries, with Hong Kong being the most prevalent destination. A team of researchers traveled to some specific destinations where the tracking devices lead them. It was determined that those parts of the world had some of the highest concentrations of carcinogenic dioxins in the air, soil, and water. Most of the waste originated in the United States, which remains the only developed country in the world not to sign the international treaty known as the Basel Convention, which outlaws the export of e-waste.
When choosing an organization or company to handle your e-waste recycling, it’s imperative to understand its chain of custody system. Avoid organizations that do not document and track the movement of all items from the time they leave your facility, all the way to their final destination.
There are currently 25 U.S. states and the District of Columbia that have passed legislation to hasten recycling efforts in their respective jurisdictions. No federal law currently on the books mandates e-waste recycling. But a positive effect has resulted from the push by individual states to promote recycling.
The EPA estimated that about 19% of U.S. e-waste was recycled in 2010. Two years later in 2012, the rate increased to nearly 30% as states began enforcing newly-ratified regulations. The increase in recycling rates is also due to efforts by individual e-cycling companies. PC Recycle, for instance, hosts recycling events across the state of California at public libraries, religious institutions, schools, and other venues.
Individuals interesting in protecting the environment are also encouraged to collect old electronics and forward them to recycling facilities themselves.
Finally, always recycle old electronics and batteries at reputable facilities that are R2:2013 and ISO 14001 certified.