Electronic waste has become the fastest growing portion of the solid waste stream and an issue for communities across the United States, as discussed in part one of this series
. Yet the problems with e-waste do not stop at national boundaries.
An international problem
The United States is currently the largest producer of electronic waste. By 2016, both India and China are expected to surpass U.S. e-waste production levels, according to William Bullock, professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois and an affiliate of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.
This may only complicate the existing electronic waste issue both domestically and internationally, as a large portion of the waste collected for recycling in the United States is shipped abroad.
"Those doors are going to close because (those countries) are going to have their own e-waste problems," Bullock said.
An estimated 80 percent of electronic waste collected for recycling in the United States is exported, mainly to Asian countries where labor is cheaper and environmental standards are lax or nonexistent, according to the Basel Action Network (BAN), a watchdog trade organization.
Guiyu, China, is a dramatic result of this exporting process. According to a 2001 report by BAN, the city has transformed since the mid-1990s from a rural, rice-growing region into an e-waste processing center.
One of the main objectives of e-waste processing is to extract metals from the disposed electronics. To do this, workers in Guiyu immerse circuit boards in acid baths and burn wires. The emissions and ash resulting from these processes contain high levels of organic pollutants and carcinogens.
Because of the unregulated e-waste processing in Guiyu, the area has had to import fresh drinking water due to groundwater contamination. And while some information is known about the conditions in Guiyu, other e-waste processing sites have yet to be investigated.
Solutions and consumers
Unsustainable product design is partially responsible for the current e-waste issue.
According to Bullock, most of the electronic products that people throw away are not designed to be reused or reclaimed. Yet, they often contain expensive materials and require high energy inputs to produce.
"It's a real tragedy that (electronics) go and get covered up with dirt someplace where they're not ... a value to anyone," he said.
To prevent such wastefulness, Bullock stresses the need for simpler electronic product design and the use of standardized parts, which would allow for easy repairs and extend the product's life.
"We need to design products and expect that they're going to be reused and reclaimed — not end up in the landfill," he said.
While many companies have begun to consider the e-waste problem, much of the responsibility for change lies with the consumer.
"We think we need the latest and greatest (products). The existing product will work the same, but won't look as cool," Bullock said. "It all comes back to the consumer. We have to demand that we want greener products and that we're not going to put up with this waste."