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.
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.