Where’s the Harm – Recycling or Disposal?

Toxic materials create problems when our old products are ready for disposal or recycling

Electronics in the landfill. Photo by Lya Cattel, iStockphoto.

Hazardous waste in landfills:

Enormous amounts of electronic products are disposed of every year, between 20 to 50 million metric tonnes, posing grave human health threats from unsafe handling of the e-waste. Most of these discarded products went to landfills or incinerators instead of recycling facilities, resulting in water and air contamination.

Hazardous materials in e-waste, like lead and mercury, can leach out of landfills into groundwater and incinerating the plastics in electronics emits cancer-causing dioxins and furans. The batteries in electronic products, such as laptop batteries, also contain heavy metals that can leak into groundwater supplies once the batteries erode.

Learn more about e-waste in the trash.

Dangerous recycling operations:
For the approximately 20% of discarded electronics that are collected in the name of recycling, it’s estimated that between 50 to 80% of them never really get recycled, but instead are exported to developing countries, a much more profitable disposal method. In the electronic waste hubs of China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Ghana, and Nigeria—which lack the infrastructure to safely manage hazardous waste—electronic components are openly burned, soaked in acid baths, dumped into rivers, or stockpiled for scrap recovery, creating serious environmental and health impacts due to the toxic lead, cadmium, barium, beryllium, mercury, and BFRs contained in the products. When many of these brominated flame retardants are burned, the emit deadly dioxin and furans, which workers and nearby residents may inhale, or which may land on crops and grass, and be absorbed via the food chain.

Hazards From Recycling in the U.S.
E-waste recycling has the potential to cause harm even in workplaces in the U.S., particularly at facilities that are shredding electronics and processing CRT glass. This is a sector that has traditionally had little attention from OSHA, and for which health and safety protocols are still being developed. While many recyclers know what materials to expect to find in older products, they don’t have an easy way to find out what new materials may be contained in newer products (including nanomaterials) or what hazards these materials might pose if the products are shredded. (Shredders generate airborne dust.)

In July 2014, the two agencies in the U.S. government released a report called, “Evaluation of Occupational Exposures at an Electronic Scrap Recycling Facility.” This report found some troubling results including:

● Blood lead levels ranged up to 13.7 micrograms per deciliter of blood. A level of 10 or higher is considered high. Two
employees had blood lead levels above 10.
● One employee was overexposed to lead in air. Two employees were overexposed to cadmium in air. Silica concentrations in air were well below occupational exposure limits.
● Lead was found on the clothing and skin of employees and on work surfaces.
● Employees were overexposed to noise.
● Employees worked in awkward positions, used forceful exertions, and performed repetitive motions. These activities can lead to musculoskeletal disorders.
● Potentially contaminated air was recirculated back into production areas.
While this was just one study of one recycler, these results suggest that we need to see much more focus on health and safety issues in the recycling sector.

Reports on how our e-waste exports cause harm in Asia and Africa

Learn more about what happens when e-waste is exported to developing countries.