Mobile Phones Old and NewOriginally published on Care2.

Were you one of the millions of Americans to get an upgrade to one of your electronic devices this holiday season?

You know you are not alone, of course. According to the Electronics Take Back Coalition, consumers in the United States will replace approximately 400 million consumer gadgets this year.

Tiny Fraction of Obsolete Electronics Are Recycled
Do you have any idea what happens to all the old cell phones, laptops, vcr players and other obsolete electronics we discard every year? Approximately 14 percent of those devices will be “recycled,” but e-waste recycling in the United States usually means exporting electronics to developing countries and what actually happens to the materials and the workers at recycling facilities is poorly regulated and sometimes completely unknown.

Some electronics will be broken down to recover valuable metals from its components and some will get a second life in the importing country’s consumer market. David Biello of Scientific American discovered this when he covered the climate talks in South Africa this fall. The cell phone he rented during his visit was clearly used, still bearing a photo of a woman of European descent and the contact information of the previous user’s friends.

Earlier this year, a team of MIT researchers set out to find out what happens to all our old electronics by turning them into little investigative reporters that send data and images back to the team from all over the world. They outfitted the devices with GPS units and programed them to send coordinates and video images back every 15 minutes. The video below provides a snapshot of the data collected so far.


Poorly Regulated E-Waste Recycling Is Really Toxin Exporting
While only the working electronics sent back video images, the team also tracked broken and useless e-waste destined for resource recovery. According to Backtalk:

“One reason why obsolete electronics are transported over large distances is the sparse geographical distribution of dedicated recycling facilities. For example, only thirteen facilities in the world are certified to smelt and recycle the cathode ray tubes of old television sets – and all are in Asia. For these components, environmentally sound recycling is critical, since the glass of these TVs and monitors can contain up to 20% lead by weight.”

E-waste recycling internationally is a crude and dangerous industry. Workers often break apart electronics with hammers or even by heating components to melt out valuable material, releasing toxins with little regard to their own health or the environment. And it’s not just the recycling workers whose health is harmed.

“A study published last year in Environmental Health Perspectives found that children in Guiyu [a town in China were e-waste is recycled] had lead levels 50 percent higher than those in surrounding villages and 50 percent higher than safety limits set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead is known to cause brain damage.” (Scientific American)

Take Action: Stop global toxic dumping! Make it illegal to send toxic e-waste to developing nations.

What You Can Do to Stop Toxic E-Waste Exporting

1) Definitely recycle your old electronics, but choose a responsible recycler. Approximately 85 percent of e-waste ends up in U.S. landfills where toxins leach into the local environment and valuable minerals are lost. e-Stewards certified recyclers are committed to responsible recycling that doesn’t export toxins to developing countries.

See the Electronics Take Back Coalition’s guide to e-recycling for more suggestions. (And yes, delete your data first.)

2) Support electronics take-back programs and laws to require manufactures to implement them. The consumer electronics industry is extremely profitable, in part by hoisting the cost of disposal of their products onto the general public. In response to popular demand, companies like Apple and HP will take back your old electronics, sometimes for discounts on new purchases.

3) Support federal and state legislation to prevent e-waste exporting. Several states have passed laws to regulate the disposal of e-waste and bills have been introduced in both chambers of the U.S. Congress. Find out about state legislation and support the bi-partisan Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2011 (H.R.2284 and S.1270).


Photo credit: Old phones by flickr user CannedTuna, used by Creative Commons license.