Friday, January 6, 2012


Many of us got shiny new electronics for Christmas, often replacing outdated models or equipment that's broken and no longer working. By now you may be wondering "What do I do with the old stuff?" And even if you didn't get anything new, every electronic device has a lifespan. What do you do when your mobile phone stops working? Or your computer breaks down?

What Is eWaste?

eWaste is a popular, informal name for electronic products nearing the end of their "useful life." Computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, cell phones, Internet devices and fax machines are common electronic products. Many of these products can be reused, refurbished, or recycled. Unfortunately, electronic discards is one of the fastest growing segments of our nation's waste stream.

Every year, we throw away up to 50 million tons of unwanted electronic waste – eWaste. That's enough to fill one million trucks that would stretch half way around the entire globe if they were parked end to end.
In addition, some researchers estimate that nearly 75 percent of old electronics are in storage, in part because of the uncertainty of how to manage the materials. Combine this with increasing advances in technology and new products headed towards the market and it is no wonder that "eWaste" is a popular topic.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as much as three quarters of the computers sold in the US are stockpiled in garages and closets. When thrown away, they end up in landfills or incinerators or, more recently, are exported to Asia.

Why Can't I Just Throw It In The Trash?

Simply put, electronic devices contain many types of toxins and hazardous materials which are harmful to humans and wildlife.

PVC contaminates humans and the environment throughout its lifecycle; during its production, use, and disposal it is the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics, and can form dioxin, a known carcinogen, when burned. Some BFRs are highly resistant to degradation in the environment and are able to build up in animals and humans.

  • eWaste is the fastest growing waste stream in the US.

  • Only 11% is currently recycled.

  • The average lifespan of computers in developed countries has dropped from six years in 1997 to just two years in 2005.

  • Mobile phones have a lifecycle of less than two years in developed countries.

  • 183 million computers were sold worldwide in 2004 - 11.6 percent more than in 2003. In 2010 346.2 million computers were sold in the US alone.

  • 674 million mobile phones were sold worldwide in 2004 - 30 percent more than in 2003. In 2010 the number of cell phones in use worldwide hit 4.6 BILLION.

  • And the problem will only get worse...

According to GreenPeace much of the world's hazardous eWaste gets exported to countries like China, India and Africa where rather than being safely recycled eWaste is improperly dumped and exposing the local workers to severe health hazards.

With the growth of electronic waste, workers who deal with eWaste and the wider community are exposed to significant health risks. Burning of eWaste to recover valuable resources, as routinely takes place in the backyards of China, India and much of the global South, can form dioxins. Eliminating the substances will decrease exposure and increase the recyclability and reusability of electronic products.

eWaste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing ones, often in violation of the international law. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47 percent of waste destined for export, including eWaste, was illegal. In the UK alone, at least 23,000 metric tons of undeclared or 'grey' market electronic waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to the Far East, India, Africa and China. In the US, it is estimated that 50-80 percent of the waste collected for recycling is being exported in this way. This practice is legal because the US has not ratified the Basel Convention.

Still not convinced it's a big deal? Take 20 minutes (yes, it's a long video and worth it, though there are shorter clips on YouTube if you don't have the time to watch it all now) and watch "The Story Of Stuff." I guarantee it will open your eyes. You can read more on their website, aptly named

Breaking The Cycle: What You Can Do

Repurpose your old but still working computer

8 Uses for an old smartphone

Buy from companies committed to green policies In 2006 more than one billion mobile phones were shipped worldwide. However, Nokia (the market leader) recycles just 2 percent of the phones it sells.

The major computer makers do little better, with currently an average recycling rate of just 9 percent. That means the major companies don't recycle over 90 percent of their old products.

Recycle responsibly. In most larger communities there are plenty of recycling companies who will pickup your eWaste, free of charge, and/or have convenient drop-off points. I can't voucher for it's accuracy, but I found a nifty eWaste Recycling Calculator, to calculate the amount of carbon emissions saved.

Will It Make A Difference?

In a word, yes. Japan has effective recycling legislation and Sony reports that it collects 53 percent of it's old products in Japan. That's five times better than the global average for major PC makers and shows that solutions are already available. If Japan - one of the major electronics manufacturing hubs of the world - can do it, so can the rest of us.