America’s Electronic Waste Problem

Americans and their businesses wait for days, stand in long lines, and spend millions of dollars on new equipment every year, tossing out older models to make room. Normally we discuss the security issue that such practices create, but today we want to take a global look at a very different and deadlier problem: shipping all of those used devices to third-world countries where they create areas of toxic scrap.

What’s the Danger?

Starting in the 1990s, the computer truly revolutionized the home and every business in the U.S., and PC models were becoming more disposable and less of a large investment. At the same time, acid leakage and other harmful chemical leaching were starting to be identified, along with their dangers understood by the Environmental Protection Agency.

While the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act, passed in 1996 and signed by President Clinton, controlled some of the dangers from batteries, it and the EPA acknowledged that other threats existed and were harder to control.

So, municipalities starting stopping the collection of a variety of waste products, including:

  • Cathode ray tubes
  • TVs and monitors
  • Circuit boards
  • And many individual components that contain lead, cadmium, and mercury.

All of these have been identified as threats to your health.

But, today, many of these materials are not processed safely — they are instead just shipped in their dangerous forms to other countries, where the poor often try to earn a living by scrapping and collecting the materials, exposing them to major hazards.

Why Don’t People Recycle E-Waste?

“There is almost nothing as hard to recycle as electronics,” notes James Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN). And unfortunately, that means some people simply don’t recycle while other groups claim to, but then realizing how difficult it is, instead ship electronics to landfills, according to a recent BAN report.

And, in most cases, it comes down to two things: economics and laws.

It’s extremely expensive to properly recycle e-waste. Because there are poor controls over how things are recycled and few audits for those materials, many may claim to recycle electronics while instead paying to ship them off and move the blame and burden to someone else.

Current EPA rules may exempt computer parts and equipment from hazardous waste designations— even though they contain dangerous, hazardous chemicals known to leach into drinking water. This policy makes it legal to export this waste from the U.S. to developing countries.

The EPA has also secured consent with many developing countries to ship our hazardous waste to them, putting it out of sight and out of mind.

We even trade in electronics waste with countries like China and Ghana, where importing dangerous trash is forbidden, but secondary “black” markets arise to buy the waste and recycle it. Other popular markets for our waste include Nigeria, India, and the Ivory Coast.

In these places, mountains of electronic waste surround villages where people hope to make money from leftover components, even as they poison the air, water, and the bodies of these people when they come into contact with the debris.

What Can You Do About It?

The best thing you can do is to take your electronic waste to a facility or company that recycles it and certifies that all of the harmful elements are kept out of landfills, both at home and abroad.

That’s a service we at Securis provide, but, when it comes to protecting people all over the world, we just hope you take it somewhere to be properly disposed of and recycled.

It’s important to do your part because it’s how we safeguard the planet for ourselves, our neighbors, and our future.

You can also support renewed federal legislation and policy on e-waste. We believe that Congressional action is the only way to solve this problem on a national scale, but that there are many things we as individuals can do to solve the problem while it is here in our own backyard.

Make sure your partners properly recycle your e-waste and ask your local representatives to push for smart legislation that would safeguard us all. It’s a proven bipartisan issue because we all care about our world and those who live in it.

Together, we can control our waste and stop putting the lives of others at risk.