Look around you and count the number of electronic devices you see. If you're like most people, you can probably see a laptop, television, DVD player, ipod or a cell phone at the very least.
Did you ever wonder what happens to all those items once you've discarded them? Most of our electronics are classified as e-waste once they're thrown away. Although we think of obsolete or outdate electronics as waste, many of them contain valuable metals such as copper that could be recovered and reused. Electronics may also contain at least one potentially toxic trace element or compound, including lead, mercury, cadmium, polychlorinated biphenyls, chromium, or brominated flame retardants to name a few.
But, you say, you take your used electronics to a designated electronics collection and recycling center, like many other responsible people in the U.S. What you may not know it that there's a good possibility that your e-waste will end up in a shipping container on its way to Asia, where it's dismantled to recover anything that may be of value. This dismantling is often done by poor, underprivileged people in conditions that show little regard for the health of the workers or the environment. A segment aired on 60 minutes highlights this troublesome issue.
The Government Accountability Office found in a 2008 report that current Federal regulations governing hazardous waste disposal or export focus mainly on cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and need to be expanded to include all electronic devices. The report also found that the Environmental Protection Agency has done little to enforce current regulations.
In 2007, Minnesota joined a growing number of states in enacting legislation aimed at curbing the export of e-waste. The Minnesota Electronics Recycling Act of 2007, considered to be one of the toughest legislative efforts targeting e-waste in the U.S., requires manufacturers of certain electronic devices (mainly televisions, laptop computers and computer monitors) to take back their used products and to help pay for recycling costs. While there are a number of locations around the state to drop off used electronics for recycling without paying a fee, smaller and rural communities must still charge fees to cover recycling costs. Instead of paying the fees, some residents resort to illegally dumping their electronics into ditches and waterways.
One alternative to the problems associated with e-waste is to make the products with more environmentally friendly components.
To learn more about the international efforts to halt the illegal export of e-waste, read Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia.