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.

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.