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Technology Transcends Borders. So Does Its Hazardous Waste

In an age where a wealthy few deliberate over quality of life versus economic prosperity, many forget that it is not a choice for thousands of people.

In multiple developing nations, it is not uncommon for young children and their families to wake up and work hazardous jobs every day for minuscule monetary gain, all without the luxury of hesitating.

These children are not the enemies, and neither are their parents for allowing them to do the perilous work. They are merely victims of another form of modern-day colonialism: electronic waste dumping.

The phenomenon is not a recent development. For over a decade, waste management officials warned of how quickly the e-waste stream would grow given the rate of novel technological developments.

According to a 2019 United Nations report, 50 million tons of e-waste is thrown in landfills rather than recycled every year, including the 152 million cell phones tossed in just the United States. Couple this with the fact that almost all major tech companies use recoverable precious metals such as gold, copper, silver, and platinum in laptops, computers, tablets, and mobile phones. Waste pickers in India, China, and more work tirelessly to recover the valuable materials found in the devices, hoping to sell them in exchange for a small sum of money. What they don’t know is that, despite the promise of gold, they will also encounter extremely toxic mercury, lithium, lead, and flame retardants.

The electronic parts are melted down, burned, and crushed by children perched ankle-deep on mountains of the smoking pieces and smashed glass. Their mother’s pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage. They’re dehydrated, but the water is infused with poison from the waste’s runoff. Cancer, kidney failure, stomach ulcers, and respiratory diseases claim the lives of their parents, and eventually, they will follow suit.

They pick through the waste with chemical-burned, calloused hands.

The work violates the fundamental rights of people who are routinely discounted simply because they are deemed inconsequential. It is an expansive, complex industry that needs to be unpacked and openly discussed. Currently, the laws concerning e-waste recycling programs in this country are not streamlined and left to the discretion of states, which many firmly believe is the logical approach. State of the Planet, a Columbia University publication, reports that “Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have their own electronic recycling laws, which vary in approach … [The problem is that] no one state has enough market share to compel manufacturers to design greener or more durable products”.

In order to mitigate this problem, the federal government will need to step up and create unified national laws. The U.S. needs to ratify the Basel Convention treaty which officially makes it illegal to export hazardous waste to other countries. We are the only nation among those who have signed this treaty to have not ratified it yet.

The federal government should then require each municipality to have an e-waste recycling program which gives the consumer money back for turning their products in, much like regular recycling programs.

The federal government as well as the tech companies manufacturing the devices will foot the bill, either through the payment of a fee upfront or reimbursement.

In the United States, some may argue that the health of workers all the way in another hemisphere is the lowest of the low on their list of priorities. Maybe they question the validity of the environmentalism movement and would rather turn a blind eye to e-waste dumped on someone else’s doorstep: out of sight, out of mind. They may also point to the economic burden of designing an innovative system for electronics disposal.

What naysayers fail to remember is that, similarly to any other problem the U.S. government creates, it will have to be addressed eventually. Not only does the toxicity of e-waste harm workers overseas, but Americans working in landfills across the country as well. They, too, are forced to handle any e-waste that does not make its way abroad. Where is there protection for them? What about the 4.4 million (mostly impoverished and minority) Americans living within three miles of the incinerators putting off dangerous fumes when e-waste is burned?

Economically speaking, the decision to put forth the capital to implement safe, effective recycling laws is not as daunting as one would think. For starters, energy is saved when used electronics are recycled. In fact, the EPA found that recycling just 1 million laptops can save enough energy to run over 3,500 households in the U.S. for one year. Not to mention the monetary value in the U.S. recovering the hundreds of pounds of those precious metals for reuse.

Among the effective national e-waste recycling programs in the U.S., a company called Electronics Recyclers International may be the gold standard. With seven locations around the country, their largest success story is servicing the greater New York City area. ERI employees pick up used electronics from the roughly 5,000 apartment complexes in Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island they have contracts with. The deliveries are made to their warehouse in New Jersey, where they are safely taken apart and sorted for departure to the proper recycling centers.

The facility is complete with designated rooms for government computers and other devices containing confidential information, all of which require security clearances to access. In 2015, that location alone was responsible for recycling 1 million pounds of e-waste, and the company is looking to expand further.

While ERI and similar organizations have yet to garner national attention, they have great potential. Because the large majority of e-waste is generated in urban areas, those would be the best places to start making a change before attempting to regulate everything at once. A partnership with companies like ERI and the EPA, for example, would keep a significant amount of e-waste generated in large apartment complexes out of landfills. Eventually, an extension to schools, office buildings, and others could help lessen the load.

Just as other leaders and companies have risen to the colossal challenge of ethical e-waste disposal, it is time for those in the U.S. to get on board before the problem—quite literally—suffocates them.

Hallie Mauk is a third-year Communications major and a staff writer at the Agora.

Image credit Ali Eichelbach, Creative Commons

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