UNITED STATES May 17 2015 9:00 AM
A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), between 60 and 90 percent of all e-waste is disposed of illegally. That means that of the 41.8 million tons of e-waste generated globally last year, anywhere from 25 to 37 million tons were just dumped. But how? There are strict controls in place for what can go into a landfill, and while there may be an occasional slip-up, developed countries are usually pretty good about keeping it separated.
The answer, of course, lies in the method of disposal – illegally. Proper recycling of e-waste costs money. Improper dumping of e-wastes costs significantly less money. So, in the name of profit, the waste is shipped out to developing countries in Asia and Africa where regulations either aren’t as strict, or aren’t there at all. Even the United States, with our stringent waste policies, isn’t immune. We illegally ship out over 30 million tons of hazardous waste, mostly to Asia.
It leaves from free ports (ports that only levy customs tariffs on a few select items), usually with forged or misleading documents listing it as “secondhand electronics,” sounding almost like a reputable business that collects old phones for reuse and distribution by charities.
Once the waste reaches its destination, it’s either taken to a landfill, an incinerator or an informal recycling facility. There, it’s torn apart and stripped of anything worth selling. Whatever’s left is simply dumped with little or no regard for environmental and health factors.
In the Chinese town of Guiyu, for example, illegal disposal has caused serious health issues in the local population. According to UNEP’s report, 80 percent of Guiyu’s children have respiratory issues and leukemia rates are skyrocketing. And that’s just the beginning of the laundry list of ailments these kids are suffering.
An official Chinese ban on the import of hazardous waste has slowed the trade, or at least forced shippers to get more creative, but this isn’t just a Chinese problem. Developing countries, like Ghana and Nigeria, also import substantial amounts of illegal e-waste.
Why would these countries risk the health of their people and the destruction of their environment by allowing this to continue? Because it’s a $20 million industry in a country with a $48.1 billion GDP(compared to our $16 quadrillion). For the workers, it puts a little bit of food on the table. For the illegal exporters, it puts a lot of food on the table, with revenue reaching around $500 per ton. And so the consequences are overlooked or ignored.
The report turned a harsh light on our global e-cycling practices, illuminating the need for more investigation and international control on a massive scale. It calls for crackdowns on waste crime, increases in awareness and an emphasis on prevention measures.
Since you’re probably not a member of the UN, though, you might be wondering what you can do. The best step you can take is to make sure your used electronics end up at reputable recyclers. Make sure their methods are transparent and they’re forthcoming about where your used device ends up. If we start from the bottom and the UN starts from the top, we might just meet in the middle and put the people responsible out of business.