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E-Waste Recycling – The Human Cost


E-Waste "Recycling"Today’s electronic devices, computers, laptops, mobile devices, and others, are often obsolete in a matter of months or years. The most affluent nations in the world generate up to fifty million computers each year, and millions more mobile devices and other electronic devices.

E-Waste, or electronic waste, is a growing problem that many municipalities are dealing with, as they leach toxic chemicals when disposed improperly. The obvious solution is recycling, recovering precious metals and reducing pollution, and only 20% of e-waste is recycled properly.

Due to some loopholes in the laws regarding e-waste, the other 80% is shipped off to third-world countries, such as Pakistan, where thousands of the poor, including women and children, are employed. Businesses ship off-shore to low-wage labor, which is been common practice for many industries, but sometimes turn a blind eye to the impact on the low-wage laborers.

Shakila Umair, researcher at KTH Centre for Sustainable Communications, made two field trips to Pakistan to study how e-waste is actually recycled there. For many, this is the only work available, and they make maybe $3 per 12-hour day, working to extract precious metals from circuit boards. Safety precautions are non-existent, such as gloves or masks, which employers won’t buy, and the employees, even if they knew the risks, can’t afford.

Umair doesn’t want to stop e-waste recycling in Pakistan, because many have no other recourse, but wants to see companies become more responsible, saying, “Why not include the conditions of these ‘distant workers’ in the Corporate Social Responsibility policies of global ICT suppliers?”

What can you do about it? Find an e-waste recycler through Basel Action Network [BAN], which certifies recyclers based on their responsible recycling practices. Consulting with BAN can help to make sure your e-waste doesn’t find its way to a third-world country and harm workers or the environment.

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  1. There is a significant factual error in the article.  “About 80% of all e-waste is shipped to developing countries where poor people recycle it manually at much lower cost than if it were recycled in more developed countries.” There is no source given, the organization which has distributed it in the past has disowned it.  Three peer reviewed studies found 85%, 87%, and 90% of imports were working or repairable (especially display devices, which do not follow Moore’s law but are “upgraded” in wealthy nations).  The article is strongest when it advocates for better workplace safety standards (already a known issue in textile manufacturing, etc. and certainly a concern in “e-waste”).  But the UNEP and others have clearly shown that most of the obsolete equipment in emerging markets is generated by their own consumers, and the 80% junk exports is a myth.   A scientific journal like this should elevate the discussion.  visit the Fair Trade Recycling group on Facebook for other ideas.

  2. Great article. Believe it or not, the dismal state of e-waste exportation is a sad but true story. There are hundreds of “electronics recyclers” in the US that fill cargo containers with obsolete e-waste and ship them to developing nations where they are dismantled in substandard conditions. Often, the less valuable material is dumped in river beds or burned out in the open. These practices are incredibly dangerous to people and the environment. The Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards certification program is a great resource for finding RESPONSIBLE electronics recyclers. ECS Refining is a founder of the e-Stewards initiative and one of a the few, end-to-end recycling solutions in the US. Please recycle responsibly! http://www.ecsrefining.com


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