Where Is Your Old Cell Phone? U.S. E-Waste Across the Globe

Were you one of the millions of Americans to get an upgrade to one of your electronic devices this holiday season?

You know you are not alone, of course. According to the Electronics Take Back Coalition, consumers in the United States will replace approximately 400 million consumer gadgets this year.

Take Action: Stop global toxic dumping! Make it illegal to send toxic e-waste to developing nations.

Tiny Fraction of Obsolete Electronics Are Recycled
Do you have any idea what happens to all the old cell phones, laptops, vcr players and other obsolete electronics we discard every year? Approximately 14 percent of those devices will be “recycled,” but e-waste recycling in the United States usually means exporting electronics to developing countries and what actually happens to the materials and the workers at recycling facilities is poorly regulated and sometimes completely unknown.

Some electronics will be broken down to recover valuable metals from its components and some will get a second life in the importing country’s consumer market. David Biello of Scientific American discovered this when he covered the climate talks in South Africa this fall. The cell phone he rented during his visit was clearly used, still bearing a photo of a woman of European descent and the contact information of the previous user’s friends.

Earlier this year, a team of MIT researchers set out to find out what happens to all our old electronics by turning them into little investigative reporters that send data and images back to the team from all over the world. They outfitted the devices with GPS units and programed them to send coordinates and video images back every 15 minutes. The video below provides a snapshot of the data collected so far.

Poorly Regulated E-Waste Recycling Is Really Toxin Exporting
While only the working electronics sent back video images, the team also tracked broken and useless e-waste destined for resource recovery. According to Backtalk:

“One reason why obsolete electronics are transported over large distances is the sparse geographical distribution of dedicated recycling facilities. For example, only thirteen facilities in the world are certified to smelt and recycle the cathode ray tubes of old television sets – and all are in Asia. For these components, environmentally sound recycling is critical, since the glass of these TVs and monitors can contain up to 20% lead by weight.”

E-waste recycling internationally is a crude and dangerous industry. Workers often break apart electronics with hammers or even by heating components to melt out valuable material, releasing toxins with little regard to their own health or the environment. And it’s not just the recycling workers whose health is harmed.

“A study published last year in Environmental Health Perspectives found that children in Guiyu [a town in China were e-waste is recycled] had lead levels 50 percent higher than those in surrounding villages and 50 percent higher than safety limits set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead is known to cause brain damage.” (Scientific American)

Take Action: Stop global toxic dumping! Make it illegal to send toxic e-waste to developing nations.

What You Can Do to Stop Toxic E-Waste Exporting

1) Definitely recycle your old electronics, but choose a responsible recycler. Approximately 85 percent of e-waste ends up in U.S. landfills where toxins leach into the local environment and valuable minerals are lost. e-Stewards certified recyclers are committed to responsible recycling that doesn’t export toxins to developing countries.

See the Electronics Take Back Coalition’s guide to e-recycling for more suggestions. (And yes, delete your data first.)

2) Support electronics take-back programs and laws to require manufactures to implement them. The consumer electronics industry is extremely profitable, in part by hoisting the cost of disposal of their products onto the general public. In response to popular demand, companies like Apple and HP will take back your old electronics, sometimes for discounts on new purchases.

3) Support federal and state legislation to prevent e-waste exporting. Several states have passed laws to regulate the disposal of e-waste and bills have been introduced in both chambers of the U.S. Congress. Find out about state legislation and support the bi-partisan Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2011 (H.R.2284 and S.1270).


photo copyright: thinkstockphotos.com

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Chinmayee Jog
Chinmayee Jog2 years ago

Thanks for sharing - I've come upon this article and petition a bit late, but this is disgraceful. However I really hope that some improvements have been made by now - I do believe that every time a new type of technology is released (e.g. cellphones), prior to release they should have detailed plans on how to recycle the parts.

s. ryan
p. q3 years ago

i'm always trying to make my electronics last longer. i purchase new stuff as seldomly as possible. my mother, however, drives me insane,--because she always just wants to "buy a new one." again, and again, and again. when i try to argue the merits of making things last, and not always buying a new one, she lectures me, repeatedly, about my being stingy and cheap and controlling, and whatever else. hmm. don't usually rant about personal stuff on the comment boards. oh well. mom is really annoying sometimes.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener3 years ago

E-waste and ecocide... think before you buy another thneed!

Mary Donnelly
Mary Donnelly3 years ago

Thanks for this informative post.

When we think of plastic bags, e-waste, bottled water, and soda drinks,etc, no wonder the planet, people, animals, and plants on it are in such strife.

Jane R.
Jane R.3 years ago

Debbie C.: I took used ink cartridges to Office Depot and got a penny off my new purchase. I wish the really did give $2. I do have a cell phone but it stays in my car and is never turned on. It's for emergencies only. I hate that wherever I go people have a phone glued to their ear.
Amazing video.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim3 years ago

Great article. Thanks for the info!

Yvonne Fast
Yvonne F.3 years ago

People have to stop buying new things all the time! Use the old ones until they don't due anymore!

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

We have a drawer with about 6 old cell phones in it. I heard about a woman's shelter that needed them, but I lost the address. I will find it and send them to the shelter.

Staples and Office Depot give you $2 when you recycle an ink cartridge, so we have been doing that for years.

Once a year, our community has a drop off point for old printers, scanners, CPU's, and etc...

As you can tell, I totally believe in recycling of whatever we can.

Thank you for the article.

jayasri amma
jayasri amma3 years ago

Good subject for group action: an Eagle Scout or Gold Award project in every county would help people by providing responsible recycling options.

Anne F.
Anne F.3 years ago

Good subject for group action: an Eagle Scout or Gold Award project in every county would help people by providing responsible recycling options.