Ever wonder what becomes of your unwanted laptop, television, cell phone, or electronic gadgets? Would you believe that your discarded electronics are quite possibly contributing to severe pollution and human rights abuses worldwide? Well, it’s true. E-waste is a major contributor to the human health risks and human rights violations of the workers who handle e-waste and the everyday people who live near dumping facilities around the world.
What is e-waste?
Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to unwanted electronic devices and parts. With today’s ever-changing and swiftly-advancing electronic technologies, more and more electronics become passé over a short span of time. Because the average American household owns 24 electronic devices and because technological advances in our most-loved gadgets occur at a very frequent rate, e-waste is now the most rapidly growing waste stream in the United States. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about 40 million computers became obsolete in the United States in 2007 alone.
So what became of the 40 million obsolete computers in 2007? The EPA reports that, “of the 2.25 million tons of TVs, cell phones and computer products ready for end-of-life (EOL) management, 18% (414,000 tons) was collected for recycling and 82% (1.84 million tons) was disposed of, primarily in landfills.” Few of these landfills, however, exist in the United States. The largest dumping facilities exist in developing countries, whose citizens may never have even used an electronic device. This is particularly troubling because e-waste contains some of the most toxic substances known to man, and these countries typically do not possess the technology, knowledge, or regulations to safely dispose of or house such substances.
Environmental and human rights concerns
The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur Okechukwu Ibeanu, who will visit India this month to examine the linkage of e-waste and human rights, recently explained that, “E-waste is one of the most hazardous waste streams worldwide. Electronics contain over 50 hazardous chemicals or heavy metals that can cause serious health and environmental risks if not disposed in an environmentally safe manner.”
According to the EPA, the most harmful substances found in e-waste include lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants as well as carcinogenic substances, among others. These materials, if not disposed of properly, can lead to serious health and environmental damage for people who handle the e-waste, the workers who collect the e-waste, and the communities that house the collection facilities. For example, for e-waste workers in China and India, countries who have absolutely no regulations as to the disposal of e-waste, the “harvesting” of such substances has become a highly profitable, but very dangerous, business:
International and domestic laws concerning the disposal of e-waste
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, or simply The Basel Convention, is the most comprehensive international treaty in existence created to combat the movement of hazardous waste between countries.
Drafted in response to the unethical practices of certain industrialized countries, known as “toxic traders,” who began shipping vast amounts of hazardous waste to Eastern European and developing countries for dumping in the late 1980’s, the Basel Convention was entered into force on May 5, 1992 and ratified by 168 countries.
The Basel Convention is governed by the Conference of the Parties (COP) which is comprised of all the governments who have either ratified or acceded to the Treaty. Out of the 172 signatory countries to the Treaty, the United States joins Haiti and Afghanistan as the only three signatories who have not followed through with ratification.
According to Greenpeace, it is estimated that between 50 and 80% of e-waste collected for “recycling” in the United States is actually exported for dumping in other countries, namely China and India. Greenpeace adds that although this practice is in direct violation of the Basel Convention, it is not illegal since the United States has yet to ratify the Treaty.
As of today, and despite numerous attempts to mandate the recycling of e-waste, no such federal laws concerning e-waste exist in the United States and state laws regarding the disposal of e-waste varies from state to state. And, since the United States government has made no immediate plans to ratify the Basel Convention, it therefore falls on us, the consumers, to find better, safer, and more moral ways to dispose of our current e-waste and prevent future e-waste in our own lives.
What we, as consumers can do
There are a variety of relatively simple things that we can do with our e-waste to not only help protect the environment, but also the lives and safety of our fellow global citizens. Perhaps the easiest and most direct way that we can effect change by properly disposing e-waste is to consider recycling your old electronics with a reputable, licensed e-waste collection agency. (See below for a list of local, reputable e-waste recyclers.)
Another way to help combat the unethical and dangerous disposal of e-waste is to support companies that follow the Basel Convention. For example, in 2009, Dell became the first major computer company to prohibit the exportation of non-functioning electronics to developing countries, putting Dell not only in alignment with, but above and beyond the standards set forth in the Basel Convention.
Finally, we can petition the United States government to ratify the Basel Convention and we can write to our state Senators and local Congressmen to create a federal law mandating the safe and responsible disposal of e-waste.
For addition information about e-waste and e-waste recycling, please visit the EPA’s Frequent E-Waste Questions website.
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