The international crisis of high-tech trash

computer e-waste recycling. high tech trash

TVs and monitors awaiting recycling. Photo taken in 2008. Who doesn’t have flat screens by now?

According to Moore’s Law, computer processing power doubles every two years.

As a corollary, every new product is already almost obsolete. We get rid of old electronics with reckless abandon. What happens to this high-tech trash?

It has become an international crisis. Recent advances in technology have actually made it worse. 

Televisions last longer than most other electronics. But on July 13, 2009, all broadcasters were required by law to stop broadcasting analog signals.

Newer televisions could receive both analog and digital signals over the air. Some people bought converter boxes. The switch didn’t affect cable service. But many TVs that had worked well for years became useless junk overnight.

And that was before the vogue for flat screens for both TVs and computers. As the infographic below shows, we only keep TVs about 10 years. That’s five times as long as we keep computers. Phones and other gadgets have an even shorter useful life. They’re almost high-tech trash right out of the box.

Economic costs of recent technology

Older computers used to be relatively easy to take apart. It was possible for repair shops, or even handy individuals, to replace dead parts, including even the motherboard. But for the last decade or so, designers have turned their attention to creating products as thin and light-weight as possible.

Manufacturers (Apple and Samsung for example) and retailers (Staples and Best Buy for example) offer programs for proper disposal of obsolete electronics.

Devices in good condition can be refurbished and resold. Otherwise, the correct manner of recycling them includes disassembling them and shredding them to recover metals and glass.

But as projects get thinner and lighter, taking them apart becomes more difficult. At the same time, each device yields a lesser volume of saleable scrap. Working harder to make less money makes no economic sense. Recycling works only when companies and consumers can buy and sell either commodities or new products at a reasonable price.

The amount of adhesives required to make products slim enough to entice consumers creates nightmares for recyclers. They must remove all the glue before they can do anything else.

The batteries require even more care. Under the best of circumstances, a damaged battery can explode. Imagine trying to pry one loose from all the surrounding glue without creating a fire hazard!

Fortunately, many large electronics manufacturers have sustainability offices. They are beginning to explore environmentally sound product life cycles.

Designing products with less glue and otherwise making them easier to take apart will require standardization. In turn, standardization will make products less distinctive. Manufacturers need to be willing to offer fewer variations in color, texture, and touch, even though they find the variety so marketable.

And consumers need to be willing to see fewer choices in look and feel, not to mention products a little thicker and heavier.

When old electronic equipment becomes high-tech trash

E-waste recycled in 3rd world. high tech trash

Recycling e-waste dangerously

What happens to our electronic gadgets when we can no longer use them? Or decide we’re tired of them and get something fancier?

Most old electronic equipment winds up in landfills. Americans have an incredible amount of unused electronics in drawers, garages, attics, or rented storage. We take about 20% of our high-tech trash to be recycled.

Unfortunately, taking it to your town’s collection center or a company that purports to be a recycler doesn’t mean that it will be recycled properly.

Competent and conscientious recycling companies carefully minimize risk to health and the environment.

But too often electronic waste is simply sold to brokers. The brokers sell much of it to the developing world. Third world countries have neither the infrastructure nor regulatory framework to handle it safely.

As much as half of the electronic waste taken to American recycling centers leaves the country. That despite the fact that US law forbids nearly all the exports.

China long served as a dumping ground for the world’s electronic waste. It has started to crack down, but it still accumulates much more e-waste than it produces.

The volume of high-tech trash China’s rapidly increasing middle class generates has increased 63% over the last five years. But the amount of discarded phones, computers, TVs, games, and other gadgets in China has increased 107% in the same time.

China, too, has recyclers who know how to handle the waste properly. But most of what passes for recycling happens with hammers and fires.

Old electronics recycling as it is too often done

All over the developing world, scrap sellers bring loads of obsolete electronics to scrap markets.

Ambitious young entrepreneurs purchase a few. They strip them of drives, memory chips, and anything else they can resell. They burn the flame-retardant insulation off wires to reclaim the copper.

Then they sell it for a pittance to scrap-metal buyers. With some of the money, they buy more high-tech trash and set to work on it.

The smoke that envelops them releases carcinogens and other toxins into the atmosphere. Including the air they breathe. In the process, broken glass, including picture tubes, falls to the ground. It spills lead and cadmium, among other poisons.

If the resulting piles of broken junk are located near a river or the ocean, strong rains will wash the whole mess into the water. Toxic metals pollute both water and soil. They make water dangerous to drink and damage crops.

Use your electronics as long as you possibly can. Then find a reputable e-waste recycling company that knows what to do with it.

e-waste recycling infographic high tech trash

The E-Waste Problem and How to Help created by Digital Doc

China’s booming middle class drives Asia’s toxic e-waste mountains / Stephen Leahy, The Guardian. January 16, 2017
High tech trash: will your computer wind up in a ditch in Ghana? / Chris Carroll, National Geographic. January 2008.
Our e-waste problem is ridiculous, and gadget makers aren’t helping / Christina Bonnington, Wired. December 8, 2014

Photo credits:
TVs and monitors awaiting recycling. Photo by David Wright. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Recycling e-waste dangerously.
Some rights reserved by Jake Brown

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