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.