The Wild West of Electronic Waste

IRVINE , CALIFORNIA – One Troy ounce (31 grams) of gold is now selling for approximately $1,150 on the open market. The equivalent weight of platinum sells for $1,450. High prices encourage more mining, but they don’t begin to cover the cost to human health – and to the earth itself.

For example, thousands of children in China’s Henan Province are sick from lead poisoning, because they live near a facility operated by Henan Yuguang Gold ampamp; Lead Company, one of the world’s largest mining conglomerates.

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But high prices are also encouraging many more people to extract precious metals from existing products – at great danger to themselves and others. Indeed, the world’s population throws away nearly 10 ounces of gold and five ounces of platinum for every ton of cell phones that are discarded in landfills or incinerated.

Other precious metals that are teased from the Earth, including indium, gallium, palladium, and ruthenium, are being discarded in much the same way as other electronic waste (e-waste). So is tantalum, the essential constituent of the capacitors used in cell phones. Approximately 37% of the world’s supply of tantalum comes from Central Africa, where mining it has been linked to devastating wars and environmental pollution.

It can be argued that disposing of high-tech e-waste in landfills is just another way of returning these precious metals to the earth, where, millennia from now, it will have merged with the substrata, becoming just like any other ore. But, along with the precious metals, e-waste also contains potent toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants. The short-term consequences of using landfills, shallow pits, or incinerators to get rid of e-waste is the release of these noxious chemicals, which adversely impact ecological processes, wildlife, and human health.

For more than a decade, the precious metallic component of e-waste has been fueling a polarized international trade in potentially hazardous materials, with defunct electronic products exported to countries where labor is cheap. There, the prospect of recovering a fraction of an ounce of gold or platinum entices communities to discount heavily the toxic risks and health effects of chronic exposure.

Compounding this problem is the diversity of national and international regulatory policies in place or being developed to manage e-waste. The lack of consensus on the magnitude of the problem, and gaps in legislative coverage, only serves to deepen the holes into which vulnerable populations stumble while attempting to make a living through artisanal e-waste mining.

The Basel Convention on the control of trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal was meant to level the playing field between countries that produce toxic waste and those that potentially consume it. Essentially, it sought to neutralize sentiments such as those expressed in a memo attributed to Lawrence Summers, former Harvard President and now Director of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

The Basel Convention, now 20 years old, has struggled to keep up with new technologies, unpredictable loopholes, and clandestine economic transactions involving hazardous waste. At its inception, no one could have predicted that within two decades, electronic products would become a 50-million-ton global problem looking for local solutions.

If sustainable solutions to the global e-waste problem are to be found, conscientious international cooperation will be needed. This is because the problem permeates the entire life cycle of electronic products, from the mining of raw materials to the occupational hazards associated with manufacturing and product assembly and the disposal of outdated or broken products. In the current global market, the life cycle of an electronic device may include the synthesis of labor and material from a dozen or more countries.

Most proposals for managing e-waste fall into one of two major categories. Some would manage e-waste at one of the handful of sophisticated smelters that can recover precious metals from discarded electronic devices. For example, The Umicore Group in Belgium advertises itself as the world’s largest recycler of electronic scrap, mobile phones, and laptop computers.

For numerous reasons, not every country can afford to build smelting facilities that operate at the level claimed by Umicore. Hence, this strategy will require some cross-border shipment of e-waste. The major challenge, however, is the difficult work of collecting unwanted devices at the street level, and sorting and coordinating collected items for international distribution and processing.

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The second major category of e-waste management strategies is to decentralize recycling while keeping the environmental impact of small-scale facilities to an acceptable level. In a way, this is already happening through cottage industries in countries such as China, Ghana, India, and Nigeria, which employ ill-equipped artisans who are not sufficiently trained to avoid harmful procedures that contaminate the environment and sicken themselves and their neighbors.

To work effectively, electronics manufacturers must assume some responsibility for training recyclers, in developing small-scale facilities that can operate at the regional level, and in working with regulators to ensure appropriate safety and environmental monitoring schemes for such operations. Ultimately, effective strategies for managing e-waste require the development of local infrastructures, aggressive coordination of community participation, and international regulations that encourage sustainable manufacturing practices without stifling innovation.