When your old computer, cell phone, or MP3 player becomes obsolete, what do you do with it? Put it on the curb? Recycle it? Donate it?
No matter what you do, your “e-waste” may just end up in one of several African countries with a thriving computer-salvaging market. An estimated 45 million tons of electronic waste make their way from the U.S. and the U.K. to Kenya, Nigeria, India, China, and other developing countries each year. And much of that waste is unusable and ends up in landfills when no recycling facilities for unusable materials are available, such as in Lagos, Nigeria. Most landfills are near slums, where children and adults pick through garbage trying to salvage food or goods they can sell.
Unfortunately, e-waste is full of toxic materials such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium that are slowly poisoning those living in proximity to the dumps, including the many children who depend on dumps for their livelihoods. Since many of the dumps are located near swamps or other watershed, toxins are slowly leaching into already-unsafe water supplies. Nigeria’s University of Ibadan warns that children exposed to e-waste in theses areas face serious health risks for long-term cancer, particularly in the lungs, and research in China indicates elevated levels of lead in children living in areas where e-waste dumps are situated.
The environmental implications of e-waste run much deeper than direct exposure to toxins. Much of the waste is incinerated, releasing toxins and CO2 into the atmosphere. And many of the materials used to produce your electronics require intensive mining process that are harmful to the environment. By discarding those resources in the form of e-waste, we are wasting resources and destroying habitats. Increased levels of heavy metals are being found in soil and plants grown in soil surrounding dump sites.
So what are we to do when we can’t reuse our own outdated materials? Think reduce, reuse, recycle. For starters, reduce the amount of e-waste you are producing. Don’t replace your electronic devices unless it’s truly necessary–do you really need a new cell phone, or will your old one do just fine?
Second, reuse. If you simply must get a new phone, can someone in your family use your old one? Wait until your teenager needs their first phone to buy your new one, so your teen can reuse your old phone. Same with computers, laptops, or MP3 players. Freecycle, Gigoit, and Craigslist are easy venues to turn your trash into someone else’s treasure. There are also several reputable charities that will accept your e-waste (see below).
Third, recycle what you can’t donate or reuse. Many e-waste recycling programs are simply fronts for people who sell usable and unusable e-waste, which is part of the problem in developing countries–e-waste meant for recycling is sent to these countries under the guise of reuse, when no recycling facilities are available. Greener Choices, a division of Consumer Reports, has an entire section on its website devoted to helping you find reputable places to donate or recycle your used electronic goods. They can also tell you whether you should “fix it or nix it” when it comes to broken or outdated products. Earth911 is also a good resources to find ways to responsibly dispose of your e-waste.
Finally, Greenpeace is also campaigning major computer manufacturers to create greener computers, and you can sign their petition here. Forcing manufacturers like Dell and Apple to create longer-lasting products with fewer toxic materials can eliminate part of the problem before it starts.
[This post was written by Kelli Best-Oliver]