E-Waste Problem Overview
The Problem With Electronics and E-Waste
Products Are Quickly Obsolete and Discarded
In the US, we scrap about 400 million units per year of consumer electronics, according to recycling industry experts. Rapid advances in technology mean that electronic products are becoming obsolete more quickly. This, coupled with explosive sales in consumer electronics, means that more products are being disposed, even if they still work.
Electronics are Difficult To Recycle
Recycling electronics isn’t like recycling cardboard. These products are not easy to recycle. Proper and safe recycling often costs more money than the materials are worth. Why?
Materials used and physical designs make recycling challenging. While companies claim to offer “green electronics,” we are a far way from truly green products.
Monitors and televisions made with tubes (not flat panels) have between 4 and 8 pounds of lead in them. Most of the flat panel monitors and TV’s being recycled now contain less lead, but more mercury, from their mercury lamps. About 40% of the heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium, in landfills come from electronic equipment discards. More on toxics in electronics.
Discarded Electronics Are Managed Badly
The EPA estimates that in 2011, the US generated nearly 3.4 million TONS of e-waste. But only about 25% of that was collected for recycling. The other 75% went to landfills and incinerators, despite the fact that hazardous chemicals in them can leach out of landfills into groundwater and streams, or that burning the plastics in electronics can emit dioxin. More on e-waste in the landfill.
And what about the 25% that is supposedly recycled? Most recycling firms take the low road, exporting instead of recycling. A large amount of e-waste that is collected for recycling is shipped overseas for dismantling under horrific conditions, poisoning the people, land, air, and water in China, other Asian nations and to Ghana and Nigeria in western Africa. More info on global e-waste dumping.
Electronic recycling operations are increasingly active within America’s prison systems. Inmate laborers are not automatically afforded the same degree of worker health and safety protections as are people employed on the outside, nor are they paid comparable wages. Moreover, reliance on high tech chain gangs may frustrate development of the free market infrastructure necessary to safely manage our mountains of e-waste. More on prison recycling