E-waste Risks and Disposal Disasters

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Vibek Raj Maurya
An e-waste dump in Ghana.

In 2013, the global consumer electronics industry accounted for more than $1 trillion in sales, and worldwide phone sales of consumer electronics totaled 435 million units just in the second quarter, according to Gartner.1 There is no question that technology is being purchased and used more than ever, but with the average device only lasting years before being replaced,1,2,3 these electronics have now also become the fastest growing waste stream, and unfortunately, some of it is flowing into developing nations.

China, Ghana, and other developing nations have become international hot spots for digital dumping. These regions generally receive daily shipments of large containers filled with nonworking electronic components. E-waste contains harmful chemicals such as arsenic, barium, beryllium, and many others. If not disposed of properly, these substances can be extremely harmful to human health and the environment.2

In 2008, CBS released a documentary on 60 Minutes about an e-waste dump in Guiyu, China, a place that is found to have the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world.3 Discussions furthered the following year when PBS released a similar Frontline documentary about toxic e-waste dumps in Ghana.4 These two developing nations share many of the same characteristics, including impoverished citizens, polluted air, contaminated water, and hundreds of millions of tons of e-waste brought in each year from first-world nations like Germany, the U.K., and America.

Citizens living in these developing nations work the electronic wastelands by hand without proper disposal methods or environmental, health, and safety standards. Adults and children who work and live near the area are exposed to toxic chemicals every day. Staggering health side effects can range from mild to very serious conditions. Two of the most toxic compounds on earth, polychlorinated and polybrominated dioxins, pollute the air quality in these areas due to the open burning of plastics as a routine maneuver used for separating out precious metals from electronic devices by hand.

This e-waste crisis does not stop at environmental and health detriments, it also leads to an upsurge in cybercrime. A recent study by the National Association of Information Destruction (NAID) found that 30 percent of recycled computers had hard drives that still contained sensitive personal data.5 Computers, cell phones, and digital copiers containing private information are amongst the piles of e-waste shipped to third-world countries every day, oftentimes under the previous owner’s assumption that it had been wiped clean. Salvaged hard drives are resold in open markets where organized criminals seek them out for the personal information they store. Under these circumstances, data spanning from bank information to family photographs have the potential to remain on devices for criminals to use in unlawful endeavors. The illegal activity has worsened to the point that the U.S. State Department has labeled Ghana as one of the top places in the world for cybercrime.

For those living amid the digital dumps, real-life survival often hinges on the choice between hazardous working conditions that pose severe health risks and illicit cybercrimes, but it doesn’t have to stay this way. With industry regulations, responsible recyclers, and an international commitment to end the problem, big changes are possible, and it can start right here in the States.

Current Recycling in America

Within America, each of us has the choice to responsibly recycle our electronics and doing so is beneficial to our livelihood. Studies show 10,000 tons of e-waste in a landfill creates only six jobs, but when that same 10,000 tons of e-waste is recycled, 36 jobs are made available.6 Electronics recyclers around the nation offer pickup and drop-off services to consumers and businesses typically at little or no charge. Unfortunately, even while 70 percent of Americans have recycled some type of electronic device,7 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates only 25 percent of the total e-waste in America are actually recycled.8

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Basel Action Network
A worker dismantling toner cartridges by hand at an e-waste dump in Guiyu, China.

America has far more disposal and landfill regulations in place than in Ghana and China, but even in the States, 70 percent of the harmful chemicals in our landfills come from electronics.9 Recycling electronics not only prevents hazardous chemicals from polluting our environment, it also saves energy and materials for reuse. Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in one year.10 Recycling these items helps preserve raw materials as well. Recycling one million phones will allow for the reuse of 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver, 35,274 pounds of copper and 33 pounds of palladium.10 The environmental and societal benefits of recycling are indisputable, but the challenge is getting consumers to research local options and proceed with responsible disposal.

Recycling Programs

Most people want their electronics to be recycled in a safe manner, but many do not know how. Recyclers around the nation partner with local cities and states to offer programs for consumers to properly dispose of electronics. Oftentimes e-waste can be brought to the city landfill where it is stored in designated piles to be picked up by electronics recyclers. Some cities have programs in place to toss out electronics with your other household waste to be sorted at the landfill later and others have drop-off locations available. Your local city website will be able to identify where you can bring your e-waste for proper disposal and what is required by state law.

In 2003, California became the first state to pass e-waste laws regarding the disposal and recycling of electronic devices. Since then, 25 U.S. states have enacted some type of electronics recycling legislation, but what that law entails varies state-to-state. Some laws require electronics manufacturers to pay for or operate their own electronics recycling programs and meet specified recycling benchmarks. Other state laws range from requiring manufacturer-funded education programs, mandating manufacturers to join state-run recycling programs, or for municipalities to offer electronics recycling facilities to their residents. Depending on your local legislation, one of the following services may be available to you:

  • Collection Events
    Collection events are a simple alternative to tossing electronics in the landfill. Cities, schools, and other nonprofit organizations are the most common groups that host these collections. These types of functions are held occasionally at designated times and places where residents can drive up and unload their e-waste into the hands of responsible recyclers. Collection events occur every day in cities across the nation. To find an event in your area, visit http://www.simsrecycling.com/.11
  • Collection Sites
    Some local businesses including thrift stores, storage units, and big-box retailers may offer permanent e–waste drop-off services. In addition to ordinary businesses, electronics retailers and wireless carriers almost always have areas to drop off unwanted electronics, gadgets, and tablets to ensure appropriate recycling. Next time you’re at one of these stores, keep an eye open for an e-waste recycling container.
  • Cell Phone Buyback
    The extreme popularity of mobile phones shows no signs of fading anytime soon; in fact, there are now more active cell phones in use in America than there are Americans who use them.12 The good news for consumers is that easy-to-use mobile phone buy-back services have sprung up all over the place. Programs like Zombie Phone (http://zombiephone.com/) can provide consumers with an easy and convenient method to sell their old mobile devices.13 Most services like these provide postage-paid envelopes that require minimal effort from the consumer and offer a monetary return for a device you may no longer use, whether it’s working or not.
  • Mail Back Programs
    A similar kind of mail-back service is available with newly purchased electronics. Have you ever seen the prepaid envelopes that come with your new cell phone or laptop? Equipment manufacturers recognize the growing e-waste problem and offer mail-back services to their consumers. The old products you are replacing can be packaged in an envelope and easily shipped back to the source for proper recycling, just make sure to remove any data stored on the device before sending it in.
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Fairphone
Personal data from devices can often still be harvested from electronics not recycled through legitimate and reliable means.

With many avenues for electronics recycling available, consumers are more willing than ever to do the right thing, but there are a few crucial factors to consider before that e-waste leaves your possession. Any device that stores data should be erased prior to passing it off to the electronics recycler. A basic procedure to consider is deleting all saved data from the device, such as contacts, photos, and personal files. However, to further ensure data privacy you may want to consider using a data-erasing tool that you can find on the web or to conduct a simple factory reset on all computers and mobile devices. In addition, it is suggested to verify how your chosen electronics recycler intends on wiping hard-to-clear data from the devices brought in and what they will do to protect it once received.

What to Look for in a Recycler

Not all electronics recyclers are created equal, and some recycling processes will better safeguard the data on your electronics than others. So it is important to know what look for. The recycling industry is ruled by a few key standards and certifications, one of those being the e-Stewards certification.14 This accredited third-party certification program identifies recyclers that will not export their toxic e-waste to developing countries, dump it in local landfills, or use prison labor. The e-Stewards standard is endorsed by more than 140 environmental groups, major enterprise companies, and cities.

Another important certification to note is the Responsible Recycler (R2) certificate, which calls for electronics recyclers to follow a stringent set of requirements in areas of recording, tracking, and exporting of e-waste as well as promoting the reuse of materials.

Other certifications involve environmental, health, and safety standards. Some you may want to watch for include the following:

  • ISO 14001, the environmental standard, aims to decrease the pollution and waste a business produces.
  • OHSAS 18001 is a certification designed to manage occupational health and safety to protect employees while on the job.
  • ISO 9001 assures there are defined quality management processes in place verified by routine audits.
  • ISO 27001 ensures adequate company processes are in place and followed to minimize information security risks.

While all of these standards and certificates are undoubtedly crucial, there is one more less-common designation to be aware of. The Transported Asset Protection Association (TAPA) certification specifies security requirements for the handling, warehousing, and transportation of goods in an effort to fight cargo crime. This standard ensures that once assets, including hard drives, are en route, there are security procedures in place that prevent thieves from attempting to steal them.

When you trust your assets with a legitimate recycler that adheres to these standards, you are granted the assurance that your assets (and data) will not end up in the wrong hands and that they will be recycled in an environmentally safe manner.

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Mosman Council
A free e-waste recycling drop off point organized by a town council. These can often be found at municipal dumps.

There is no stronger confirmation of the negative impacts electronic waste can have on the environment than looking at the overwhelming sights of developing nations such as Ghana and China where electronic waste is collected every day. The air and land pollution along with the health side effects felt by local populations are indisputable consequences of irresponsible recycling practices.

What is further troubling is that much of the whole e-waste components that are shipped overseas to developing countries come from the United States, where there are recycling programs available through accountable recyclers committed to providing solutions for this issue.15 Cities, businesses, and electronics manufacturers have teamed up with responsible recyclers to ensure they not only refuse to become a part of the problem, but are dedicated to the education and outreach necessary to curb the rising amounts of e-waste. The journey towards a safer environment for everyone must start with the individual. Make sure the next time you discard your old television or computer to check for health, safety, security, and environmental certifications so your electronic waste does not end up contributing to these toxic digital dumps.