Recycling E-Waste Harms Developing Countries

Americans throw out three million tons of electronic waste each year. Old computers, televisions with cathode ray tubes, cell phones, and MP3 players often contain heavy metals like lead and mercury, which pose a problem to soil, groundwater, and ultimately human health once discarded.

Many states are starting to pass laws designed to keep these products out of landfills, and thus groundwater and the air. The laws are also intended to pave a smooth transition for 2015, when it becomes illegal nationwide to toss electronics to the landfill. Effective April 1, New York passed a law requiring electronics manufacturers to provide free and convenient electronics recycling; 23 other states [PDF] have some law on e-waste already.

Planned obsolescence is a major culprit in the mass of e-waste being generated. The fact is, electronics are designed for the dump: They have a short lifespan and, more often than not, it’s cheaper to toss the old and buy the new, says the Electronics Takeback Coalition (ETC).

The ETC also says electronics have no place in the landfill: They’re loaded with toxins that can cause serious nerve and brain damage, especially when incinerated. Many of the materials inside an old or broken machine can still be useful elsewhere.

Only 15 percent of three million discards are recycled, and even then, it’s not really recycled. Because manufacturers can often make more money selling the waste to export traders than by reusing it themselves, many of our discarded computers and cathode ray tubes get shipped to dumps in developing countries, where health and human rights laws are weak and people make only a few dollars a day mining the toxic dumps.

These exported landfills often land in densely populated areas, exposing locals to toxic metals and fumes. The heavy metals also seep into the soil and groundwater, creating further (and lasting) health hazards.

But the pressing question is, now what? Our laws have good intentions, but as the U.S. bans electronics from landfills, where will our machines really end up?

As manufacturers are forced by law to take back unwanted electronics, will more just get dumped on developing nations? If not done right, these laws just heighten the problem for poorer countries and make the issue even more invisible to Americans.

For now, as for many things, the real answer seems to be prevention. Perhaps laws regulating planned obsolescence and electronics ingredients would be more productive to the cause. Maybe what we really need are laws that require companies to make a lasting product that won’t harm people and soil.

You can start doing your part pretty easily, says the ETC:

  • Donate your unwanted electronics for reuse. There are a couple of national and international organizations, like the Cristina Foundation and World Computer Exchange that work to expand access to computers. Many municipalities also have groups that collect old or unwanted electronics for fix-up and sale or distribution to low-income populations.
  • Plan your purchases and buy environmentally-friendlier electronics.
  • And fight the good fight. Many laws are still pending at the local, state and federal level, and can be positively influenced by informed people who care about the outcome.

This post was originally published by Campus Progress.

Related Stories

Finding Loopholes In California’s Electronic Waste Recycling Act

How to Stop Toxic E-Waste and The Story of Electronics (Video)

Criticism Surrounds Plans to Ship Radioactive Waste through Great Lakes for Recycling into Consumer Goods

Photo from Curtis Palmer via flickr
Written by Kara Cusolito, a Campus Progress blogger

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Janine H.
Janine H.3 years ago

Who does not have a mobile phone, i-phone, discman, mp3 player, etc.? Sometimes it seems to me, as if (the majority of) people have a new "limb", as if they would not be complete without an electric thing, somehow proto type of a cyborg, or what?
And when something new is comming, they want it as soon as possible (anyone seen it in reality or in the news? People waiting for example for a new playstation, etc. through the night, in cold or rain, until the shop opens). They don't seem to care about their "old" things, their rare constituent parts, or if these parts are toxic.
How many trash will "we" cause? Until everyone of us has cancer or whatever terrible? When do "we" wake up? What do "we" need for it?

"Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten."
(Native American proverb)

"We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not yet learned the simple art of living together as brothers." (Martin Luther King)

dawn w.
Dawn W.4 years ago

Can't trust anyone.not even "recyclers".

Chelsea M.
Chelsea M.4 years ago

Definitely confusing

Past Member
Jacqueline B.4 years ago

Yes, we do need a handle on the keep up with the Jones' on steroids. It's so bad, New Yorkers who used to be well known for street smarts have even gotten street dumb, staring into ipods, cell phones and other gadgets as they walk down the street oblivious to the world around them! Not to mention so few care the harm the cell phones are causing to our environment and fellow Earth inhabitants. One good measure I know that would help greatly is to eliminate the synthetic plastics and replace with natural plastic made from hemp. Oh, but the materially greedy power mongers would not have of that, now would they? There's a lot more we could do to make things better for all, but at this time the world is still run by those very materially greedy power mongers. The only thing left to do is band together and take a stand. I'm sure there's a lot more of us that want a better way for not just ourselves, but the Earth as a whole. We need a worldwide Jasmine Revolution! "Synthetics Never, Organics NOW!" woot woot!

Robert O.
Robert O.4 years ago

The sooner the better. They need to find ways thoough to make it so that everything can be recycled, not just certain parts while the other parts are just dumped in some other unfortunate country's backyard.

Bernadette P.
Berny p.4 years ago


Delanee Ramdon
.4 years ago

Great article.

Delanee Ramdon
.4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Anne Brabson
Anne B.4 years ago

I agree with Dale G. except on his point that it is too late...I believe that consumers CAN make better choices that eventually could lead manufacturers to create smarter electonic products without so many bells and whistles...but it will take time, education and thoughtfulness on the part of many, MANY consumers

Finica Daniel Radu

Do you believe they are doing their homework and last's until 2015? These people have their own interests. Why do you think the problems are never ending? Somebody has something to gain from "everything".Politics were invented by those who want to keep people in line.