Our Dirty Little Secret

6

by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

Do you own a new mobile phone?  Perhaps you just replaced your old laptop or handheld device with an upgrade?  Maybe you purchased an i-pod or another swanky electronic gadget for a family or friend during the past holiday season?

These devices seem to be everywhere: offices, classrooms, elevators, kitchens, vehicles, churches, theaters, and even our bedrooms.  We’ve allowed them to invade the most intimate and sacred places in our lives.

Perchance you also thought about recycling when you discarded the old model?

This brings us to what some have called our “dirty little secret.”  Americans generate more than 50 million tons of electronic waste annually.  Most of us try to do the right thing by recycling these unwanted products; but 80% of our electronic waste stream goes directly into container ships to China, India, Ghana and Nigeria, and other developing countries for metal extraction.  Given the tonnage, it’s easy for otherwise well-meaning recycling centers, no matter what they tell us, to make money off the stream’s commerce, thereby externalizing the costs despite its nightmarish impact on human health and the environment abroad.  Further, the exportation of this “effluent of the affluent” is illegal: an international crime.

In 1989, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (usually abbreviated the “Basel Convention”) was opened for signature and then entered into force in 1992.  Of the 175 parties to the Convention, only Afghanistan, Haiti, and the United States have signed the Convention without ratifying it.  The website for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that “the US supports ratification of the Convention, but to date no implementing legislation has been enacted” as a requirement for ratification.  Alas, yet another opportunity lost for international environmental leadership for America (recall our ineffective and myopic lack of direction with the Kyoto Protocol).

Keep in mind that our electronic waste is considered hazardous waste because of its nasty contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants that go into the manufacture of our multifarious gadgets to keep us plugged into our complex web of social networks.  When all this discarded equipment is shipped to foreign countries, women and children are often “employed” to liberate the metals in vast dumping grounds where toxins are breathed or flushed into rivers and groundwater from the extraction processes.

Further, some of the discarded computers and other personal devices still contain private data and asset tags from school districts, government agencies, and other organizations throughout the United States.  Can you imagine what a corrupt Nigerian opportunist might do with confidential data from the U.S. EPA or the Wisconsin Child Protection Custody Services: just two examples of groups with equipment tracked recently to these horrid dumping grounds in West Africa?

What can concerned citizens do?  First, we should ask ourselves if we really need that upgrade?  If so, then we should visit the website for the Basel Action Network for a wealth of pertinent information: www.ban.org.  Next check out the following websites for specific “green” actions:

• Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool or EPEAT (a definitive global registry for “green” electronics): www.epeat.net

• Electronics TakeBack Coalition or ETCB (an organization that promotes “green” design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry): www.electronicstakeback.com

• Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics: www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics/electronics/how-the-companies-line-up/

We can monitor our local recycling centers to make sure that they do not store large shipping containers in their yards specifically for the export of electronic discards; if so, go on-line to track the container numbers (e.g., www.track-trace.com/container or www.searates.com/container/tracking) and report suspicious movement to the U.S. EPA and relevant port authorities.  We can also use the power of our pocketbooks to persuade manufacturers to remove the toxins in our electronic products.  The technology is already available to make nontoxic computers and similar gadgets, but the electronics industry simply will not change its present course unless it’s cajoled by consumers and shareholders with another kind of “green” that the market understands intuitively.

Finally, we can convince our national lawmakers to adopt effective legislation to ban the export of electronic waste and to recycle such materials responsibly here in the United States.  A number of American states have already enacted laws to regulate e-waste, but such legislation cannot regulate foreign trade since that’s the responsibility of the U.S. Congress.  It’s our waste.  We have a moral obligation to clean our own nest and not soil someone else’s.  So let’s get this on the national agenda.

Our 21st century lifestyles are interwoven densely into the global marketplace.  Hence we need to think creatively and responsibly about our day-to-day products – from extraction to elimination – for their possible impacts on human health and the environment.  Unlike some other issues of consumerism, however, we hold this one literally in our hands.  Let’s buy the right equipment, get rid of the old stuff in the right way, and vote righteously with our dollars.