Do You Know Where Your E-waste is Going?


Broken televisions and monitors lying in the dumpster just outside a warehouse in Nigeria. Copyright Basel Action Network 2006.

How to know if your electronics recycler is environmentally responsible.

Aug. 25, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

So you’ve got a load of old electronics you’d love to get rid of. Maybe you’ve even read our last post about electronics recycling laws in your state. You’re ready to ditch that dusty old gear and have even found an electronics recycler that will take them. But, um, is the recycler responsible?

In other words, do you know where all that electronic waste is going? After all, much of it contains hazardous substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury and other bad stuff.

Some recyclers remove the hazardous substances and dispose of them properly. But others don’t bother. They can make more money exporting your old electronics to developing nations. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, an estimated 50 percent to 80 percent of our electronic waste collected for reuse or recycling is exported to countries such as China, India, Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan and Thailand. 

In many cases, waste traders in these countries use low-wage workers to unsafely smash open the obsolescent gear and strip out any metals, then dispose of the rest, along with the hazardous substances they still contain, in informal pits or to burn, the latter of which releases dangerous dioxins. 

So how do you know if an e-cycler is responsibly recycling materials and disposing of hazardous wastes? You can start at the Basel Action Network site, which lists electronic recyclers that have taken an e-Stewardship pledge of responsibility and no hazardous e-waste exporting.

If the recycling is offered for free, research the company and ask what they do with the materials. “If you’re paying money [to have electronic recycled], it’s less likely to be exported,” says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of Electronics TakeBack Coalition. E-cyclers who have their own dismantling facilities and who discuss how they dispose of hazardous wastes are a good sign, but there may be no guaranty of environmental responsibility by their vendors, smelters and others who do business with them.

On the manufacturing side, Sony  is the first to sign a Manufacturers Commitment to Responsible E-Waste Recycling that pledges not to dump toxic e-waste on developing countries or in landfills or incinerators, as well as to request that all its North American vendors and partners managing hazardous e-waste apply for the Electronic Recyclers’ Pledge of True Stewardship.

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