RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Technology becomes obsolete at a startlingly rapid pace. The iPhone released just last June is already being replaced with a newer, better model, and chances are the laptop you bought three years ago is already a "dinosaur" that runs too slowly to keep up with your newfound addiction to YouTube and Hulu.com.
Also rising rapidly are the piles of computers, televisions, cellphones, and other electronic waste, or "e-waste," that wind up in junkyards, landfills, and at secondhand stores that can't resell them. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the amount of e-waste created in the U.S. is growing at two to three times the rate of other forms of trash. Unfortunately, just 15 to 20 percent of that e-waste is recycled; the remaining 80 to 85 percent meets a far more unpleasant fate, with nasty repercussions for the environment.
THE DETAILS: E-waste isn't like traditional garbage. Electronics contain heavy metals and toxic chemicals, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants (these have been linked to thyroid problems and learning disabilities). All these chemicals can travel from landfills into groundwater or, if the waste is incinerated, be released as toxic air pollutants.
If your plan is to keep your computer out of landfills or incinerators by sending it to a dedicated computer recycler, unfortunately, there's a good chance that the computer won’t be taken apart by a company in the U.S. that will reuse parts in new or refurbished models, says Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "There are no standards at all for e-waste recyclers," she says. "Anybody can say they're a recycler and just send your stuff to a landfill or an incinerator."
But more often than not, she says, recyclers ship e-waste overseas to developing countries. Using no protective measures whatsoever, workers there then dismantle them for valuable copper wiring or other components they can sell for money. Children often do the salvaging, and in the process are exposed to metals and chemicals that can cause severe brain damage or developmental problems.