May 12, 2016

Sorting electronic waste in an alley behind Guangfu Lu on an autumn Saturday in Shanghai, China. Photo © Remko Tanis / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Electronic waste generates a certain amount of schizophrenia among environmental scientists. We all use the products of the modern computerized world, and appreciate how cell phones and working at home have reduced some resource use — for example, in copper wires and gasoline. We all advocate recycling of materials whenever possible. But, when we hear of the conditions in which electronic waste is disassembled by impoverished peoples of the third world, it gives us pause.  Why should they be exposed to the toxic metals and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) that allow us convenience in a technological society?

The quantities of such material are staggering — close to 42 million tons of electronic products were discarded in 2014, with the U.S. and Europe leading the per capita generation of e-waste. Much of this material is difficult to recycle because valuable trace- and rare-earth metals are fabricated alongside silicon, plastics, glass, and other materials. Disassembly by hand may be the only efficient way to recover valuable materials, which saves the environmental impacts of mining, smelting and refining metals from new sources.  Still, the recovery rates of materials in many third-world recycling centers are lower than could be achieved with more modern facilities.

When we cast a blind eye to the exposure of people to toxics during the disassembly of our products, we are ignoring the true cost of those products to the environment — what economists call an externality. Ideally, the cost of a new cell phone should include the cost to recycle the old one. These fees for recycling could cover the cost of protective equipment for workers and stimulate changes in design that make recycling easier. We should encourage those few programs in which companies that produce electronic products will accept trade-ins for recycling.

E-waste. Photo © BRS MEAS / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
E-waste. Photo © BRS MEAS / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Fortunately, there is some good news in the realm of electronic waste. The total number of users worldwide continues to grow, but as single devices, for instance a tablet-PC, replace multiple devices the total amount of electronic waste generated per capita can be expected to decline.  One study found that a single PC-tablet used to replace a notebook computer, electronic dictionary, mp3 player, camera, cell phone and GPS system, would reduce hazardous metallic wastes by 63-75% compared to individual devices.  In a very real sense, better technology can reduce its own impact on the environment.

This post originally appeared on William H. Schlesinger’s blog Citizen Scientist, published by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

William H. Schlesinger

William H. Schlesinger is one of the nation’s leading ecologists and earth scientists and a passionate advocate for translating science for lay audiences. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he has served as dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke and president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. More from William H.

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  1. What amazes me is that it is profitable to ship all of this waste over seas to be hand sorted for recycling.

  2. Very interesting article, Thanks for sharing this. New Technology is giving birth to new products that replace the old ones, as they become obsolete most probably in case of electronic devices they need recycling or reuse.I have come across a site defining the importance of why ewaste recycling is essential for conserving earth’s resources and what can be recovered from recycling electronic wastes.

  3. It is indeed disheartening that third world countries are not any meaningful step to stem the tide of shipment with Ghana being the worst culprit

  4. Very informational blog. To minimize the E-waste risks, we have scarcely need two persons one is bloggers like you and second is Electronic Recyclers.