The world is full of electronics -- computers, laptops, cell phones, tablets, e-book readers, et cetera. In fact, according to some estimates, by 2017 the average person will have five devices that connect to the Internet, many of them manufactured by American electronics giants Apple and Microsoft.
What's more, as the "Internet of everything" becomes more and more prevalent in the coming decades, we'll all wind up with even more devices. Already, in sum, American households average about 24 electronic devices, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
But what happens to them when we don't need them anymore? Where does your iPhone go when you toss it? How are iPhones -- and all of the other discarded electronics waste -- disposed of?
When we discard our computers, office electronic equipment, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones and television sets, it is called "e-waste." According to some estimates, the world already produces some 50 million tons of e-waste a year.
Much of this waste winds up in landfill dumps; in the U.S. alone, 70 percent of e-waste winds up in landfills. According to the EPA, about 30 million computers are tossed in the U.S. each year; in Europe, about 100 million cell phones are discarded. Only about one-quarter of e-waste is recycled.
What's more, the amount of e-waste is set to explode; as the world becomes more dependent on electronic, Internet-connected devices, millions more tons of this kind of waste will be generated each and every year. The UN's Environment Program estimates that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and by 500 percent in India.
By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher.
But a great deal of e-waste winds up in incinerators, and that's a big problem for the environment and your health. That's because of the hazardous heavy metals -- many of them rare earth metals -- that are contained in every device.
"Electronic waste isn't just waste -- it contains some very toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants," says the group e-Stewards, on its website. "When the latter are burned at low temperatures, they create additional toxins, such as halogenated dioxins and furans -- some of the most toxic substances known to humankind. The toxic materials in electronics can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, and many other health problems if this waste stream is not properly managed. Many of the toxic constituents are elements, which means they never disappear, even though they may change form."
The poisoning of Asia
A number of additional toxic elements in electronic devices don't break down over time; rather, they accumulate in the food chain and biosphere. These toxins present a risk to communities as well as the global ecosystem, and also to those who recycle electronics around the world.
e-Stewards reports that an estimated 70-80 percent of e-waste that is given to recyclers is exported, and then mostly to countries with developing economies and inappropriate technology to handle it adequately and safely -- a way of externalizing the real costs of managing such products. Open-air burning is frequent in these countries, as are riverside acid baths which are used to extract a few of the rarest materials. The remaining toxin materials are dumped, most often.
Most of the e-waste goes to China, India and Pakistan, with China being the largest dump site of the three countries. Some African countries like Ghana also deal with e-waste through incineration.
In a report titled "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia," prepared by the Basal Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, in conjunction with Greenpeace China, Pakistan's SCOPE, and Toxics Link India, noted that e-waste was the most rapidly growing waste problem in the world -- and that Asia was paying the heaviest toll:
Rather than having to face the problem squarely, the United States and other rich economies that use most of the world's electronic products and generate most of the E-Waste, have made use of a convenient, and until now, hidden escape valve -- exporting the E-waste crisis to the developing countries of Asia.
Yet trade in E-waste is an export of real harm to the poor communities of Asia. The open burning, acid baths and toxic dumping pour pollution into the land, air and water and exposes the men, women and children of Asia's poorer peoples to poison. The health and economic costs of this trade are vast and, due to export, are not born by the western consumers nor the waste brokers who benefit from the trade.
The export of E-waste remains a dirty little secret of the high-tech revolution.
Children being affected too often
Meanwhile, in Ghana, Greenpeace International says that samples taken from just two toxic e-waste burn sites there "revealed severe contamination with hazardous chemicals."
"In the yards, unprotected workers, many of them children, dismantle computers and TVs with little more then stones in search of metals that can be sold. The remaining plastic, cables and casing is either burnt or simply dumped," the organization said in a report posted online. "Some of the samples contained toxic metals including lead in quantities as much as one hundred times above background levels."
Says Greenpeace scientist Dr. Kevin Bridgen, who has visited toxic e-waste burn sites in China, India and Ghana: "Many of the chemicals released are highly toxic, some may affect children's developing reproductive systems, while others can affect brain development and the nervous system. In Ghana, China and India, workers, many of them children, may be substantially exposed to these hazardous chemicals."
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