What happens to the electronics you throw out when they stop working or you’re ready for an upgrade? While some get recycled into new products, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 50 million metric tons of discarded electronics, known as “e-waste,” end up in landfills worldwide every year. According to the World Atlas, the United States generates 48.7 pounds of e-waste per capita annually, while Norway and Switzerland top the list at 62.40 pounds and 58 pounds respectively. When these electronics aren’t recycled or sent to domestic landfills, they get illegally dumped in sites in less developed countries, such as Agbogbloshie, Ghana and Guiyu, China, two of the largest e-waste sites in the world. While the unauthorized dumping of e-waste in less developed countries has been forbidden since the 1989 Basel Convention, illicit digital dumping, which is cheaper than properly recycling devices, remains a lucrative industry. A report published this year by the United Nations estimates 50 million tons of e-waste is created every year and projects this figure to double by 2050.
In countries already struggling to provide adequate healthcare for their citizens, the e-waste crisis poses major health risks. Dangerous toxins from improperly discarded devices, such as brominated dioxins, chlorinated dioxins, and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) leak into nearby agricultural areas, accumulating in crops and livestock. The toxins are also especially harmful to the thousands of workers who scrape through piles of e-waste to recover and eventually sell valuable parts and precious metals, such as copper. In Agbogbloshie, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Ghana’s capital city Accra, respiratory illnesses resulting from high amounts of air pollution are rampant. The formal and informal waste recycling industry is an important source of labor for many Agbogbloshie residents, but often at the expense of their health and the environment.
To combat the problem of e-waste, Ghana’s Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology, and Innovation has teamed up with a German government agency, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), to offer frontline medical care inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard. Moreover, NGOs Green Advocacy Ghana and Pure Earth are developing and hoping to distribute wire-stripping machines, more advanced technology that will help waste handlers more safely dismantle devices. However, Muntaka Chasant at Ghanaweb says that initiatives such as these are short-sighted, addressing the symptoms of this public health crisis rather than the underlying problems that produced the poor working conditions, illnesses, and pollution in the first place. In a recent report by IPEN and the Basel Action Network (BAN), Jindrich Petrlik argues that manufacturers should also take more responsibility for the life cycle of their products.
So how can you safely dispose of your electronics? The Environmental Protection Agency lists major tech manufacturers that have mail-in, buyback, and in-store recycling programs. Consumer Reports also notes that many nonprofit organizations, such as Call2Recycle, and communities have drop-off locations and donation boxes for your used devices. Dell Reconnect has partnered with Goodwill to refurbish and resell computers, and the World Computer Exchange works to provide recycled and used gadgets around the world.
By Vayne Ong
Public Radio International