Chances are, if you are as immersed in the digital age as I am, you have had to recycle some of your old, obsolete electronics ... computers, PDAs, cell phones ... to replace them with newer models. But did you ever stop to think about what happens to your gadgets (or e-waste) once they get recycled?
Most folks (myself included) assume that recycled e-waste is taken to state-of-the-art facilities where it is broken down safely so the metals and other resources inside can be reused. But as it turns out, our pile of e-waste is growing so rapidly that little attention is paid to where these gadgets are actually going. Some so-called recyclers are shipping the waste overseas. And this is where things go terribly wrong ... for the planet and for the world's children.
People in the West throw away millions of old computers every year. Hundreds of thousands of them end up in developing countries in Africa and Asia where children try to eke out a living by selling the scrap. But the toxic elements in the e-waste are slowly poisoning them. Inside the electronics, lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chlorides and other toxic elements are leaching out into the environment, causing health effects that range from brain damage to kidney disease to cancer among the children who work on them.
According to a recent expose in the German newspaper, Der Spiegel, "these children live amid the refuse of the Internet age, and many of them may die of it. They pull apart the computers, breaking the screens with rocks, and then throw the internal electronics onto the fires. Computers contain large amounts of heavy metals, and as the plastic burns, the children also breathe in highly carcinogenic fumes. The computers of the rich are poisoning the children of the poor."
The United Nations estimates that up to 50 million tons of electronic waste are thrown away globally each year. According to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency, around 40 million computers are discarded each year in the U.S. alone. That's about 130,000 each day. Add that to the 100 million cell phones and countless other electronics that are thrown out annually, and it adds up to one giant pile of e-waste. It costs about $5.30 to dispose of one of these gadgets properly. But it costs less than half of that to stick it on a container ship to Africa.
Eco-activists from Greenpeace have filmed some of the recycling work in the Chinese province of Guiyu. Their footage documents women heating circuit boards over a coal fire, pulling out chips and pouring off the lead solder. Men were using what is literally a medieval acid recipe to extract gold. Pollution is everywhere in the town ... the water, the soil, and even the air. Scientists have studied the area and discovered that Guiyu has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. Pregnancies in Guiyu are six times more likely to end in miscarriage, and seven out of 10 kids in the area have too much lead in their blood.
What can you do to avoid contributing to this pollution? The Basel Action Network, a watchdog group that aims to stop rich countries from dumping toxic waste on poor ones, recommends that all consumers use only certified recyclers (a list can be found on their website) that will not allow such damaging exports. And don't be afraid to ask questions before you hand your gadgets over to a recycling center.
Recycling should be a good thing for the planet and its inhabitants, not a source of pollution that poisons the world's children.