EARTHWORKS

Electronic Waste Recycling: When a Responsible Decision Results in Irresponsible Consequences

By EARTHWORKS

June 12, 2012

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The city of Guiyu is home to 5,500 businesses devoted to processing discarded electronics, known as e-waste. According to local websites, the region dismantles 1.5 million pounds of junked computers, cell phones and other devices a year. Credit: Time Magazine

With all the innovation in the market today, consumers are constantly upgrading their electronic devices. Many consumers are making the responsible decision to recycle their unwanted electronic items. When managed properly, parts of their old electronics could be reused and potentially enter the supply chain again, thus decreasing the need to mine precious metals.

Many recycling companies claim that they have high quality facilities and strict standards. However, some recycling processors are exporting hazardous electronic waste to developing countries where electronic waste recycling is a profitable business due to low wage labor and lack of regulation.

A report by CBS’s 60 Minutes in 2008 explored how a town in China, Guiyu, has become the final destination of electronic waste from many developed countries. The town is filled with heavily polluted air and the poisonous remains of computers, televisions, and cell phones. Residents of the town rely on processing, or “recycling”, these poisonous items to make a living. Without proper tools and protective clothing, they are exposed to toxic chemicals.

Guiyu has been severely affected by its thriving recycling industry, “Scientists have studied the area and discovered that Guiyu has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. They found pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage, and that seven out of ten kids have too much lead in their blood.”

Recycling companies that export hazardous waste to developing countries are disregarding fair labor practices and imposing serious health risks on the recycling workers.

Guiyu is just one example of how recycling companies are exploiting low wage labor to profit from the electronic waste recycling industry. According to an article in The New York Times, experts “estimate that 70 percent of the 20 million to 50 million tons of electronic waste produced globally each year is dumped in China, with most of the rest going to India and African nations.”

Although recycling is one of the most efficient end-of-life management methods for electronic products, it is important to recognize that recycling should not mean exporting hazardous waste to other countries. Consumers seeking to recycle their electronic waste should carefully assess the certifications (R2 and e-Steward) of the recycling companies to ensure that electronic products are recycled responsibly.

By Ying Yu Chen


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Tagged with: recycling, e-waste, china, cell phone

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