09/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Where Does Our E-waste Go?

So you <3 (i.e., love) your new iPhone, but where's the old clunker (i.e., last month's coolest model) it replaced? And your first iPod, old PC, big tube TV that your sleek flat panel ousted? Even if you recycle, your old electronics might end up in a foreign dumping ground where they pose major health hazards to the low-paid workers who disassemble them. This is such a problem in China that it was a hot topic of discussion during my recent visit there.

Millions of obsolete computers, TVs, and other electronics are thought to be lying about Americans' attics and closets. EPA estimates that 25 million TVs alone will be retired annually over the next few years as folks make the switch to digital. With this in mind, the federal government is offering rebates on converter boxes to prevent mass dumpings of picture-tube TVs. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Rapid technological innovations coupled with increasing demand mean more devices with shorter life spans. This electronic waste, or e-waste, is the country's fastest growing waste stream -- increasing at about 3-5 percent each year, according to the United Nations [pdf]. In 2005 we generated 2.63 million tons of the stuff. Most found its way to landfills or incinerators. But neither of these is a good place for this type of waste since it contains toxic materials (such as heavy metals, chlorinated solvents, dioxins, and brominated flame retardants) that can leach into the air, water, and soil.

Recycling's Imperfections

Fortunately, about 330,000 tons of our e-waste was collected for recycling [pdf].
But these programs are few and far between, so recycling tends to
require extra effort on your part. Here are a few sites to find options
for recycling e-waste in your area: here, here, and here.

Unfortunately, recycling e-waste does not mean it will be disposed of properly. Recycling e-waste is costly. Its big load of toxic substances means harvesting the valuable material and disposing the rest is tricky business. Outsourcing is an easy answer to cut costs, and many recycling companies choose to simply ship their e-waste overseas and let the receiving countries deal with the toxic substances.

Somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of America's e-waste collected for recycling is exported, almost exclusively to developing nations in Asia and Africa (see map). Sadly, once there, lax regulations and enforcement allow the e-waste to be processed without appropriate precautions. Workers that take apart these old electronics and people living nearby are exposed to appallingly high concentrations of toxins and pollutants. A number of online reports and videos document the problem (see here [pdf], here, and here).

The problem is particularly severe in China, where it is believed that 70 percent of the world's e-waste ends up. Even though the Chinese government has banned the importation of e-waste, the stuff continues to find its way in. My colleagues in Hong Kong told me about places in Guandong Province like Guiyu where children use hammers to smash cathode-ray tubes in televisions without so much as a mask for protection. A recent study found extremely elevated lead levels in dust around recycling workshops in Guiyu. Another study indicates up to 80 percent of children living in Guiyu have lead poisoning. And lead is just one of many toxic compounds in e-waste.

The United States has not yet joined the European Union and many other countries that have ratified the international treaty banning the export of hazardous waste to developing countries. But last month a resolution to ban such export of e-waste was proposed in the House, and that may signal that the Senate might soon join the international effort to stop the practice. Actual legislation could follow. A number of responsibly-minded recyclers that use automated equipment to process e-waste are banking on such new legislation along with tighter recycling rules to make their investments pay off.

Dr. Bill Chameides is the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He blogs regularly at