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The Safety and Recycling Methods of E-Waste

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It was a blistering summer afternoon. The heat from the blaze and the oppressive humidity showered down on him like a torrent of rain. His feet scorched, coated with crusty pus-filled scabs, this young boy of about twelve struggles to stand as he lifts what appears to be a Dell or maybe an HP computer monitor. The city that he’s in, if you can call it that, is Agbogbloshie, Ghana. It reeks of misery and desolation, it’s as if the flame is frantically consuming what’s left of his childhood. The boy is dressed in a filthy FC Barcelona uniform, the once brilliant crimson red, amber gold, and electric blue can still be seen under the dirt. Perhaps the boy once had dreams of becoming a world-class soccer player, traveling the world, signing million dollar contracts, and inspiring young minds. But here he is in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, the world’s largest e-waste dump, stripping broken computers for bits of copper, silver, and gold, inhaling carbon monoxide and chlorofluorocarbons. This is the e-waste epidemic.

So, where does all of this e-waste come from? Well, it comes from all of us. Anyone who has ever thrown out or ‘recycled’ an electrical product has contributed to the e-waste epidemic. Electronic waste or more commonly called e-waste, are discarded electrical products, some are thrown in the garbage, and others taken to recycling centers with the intention of being reused or recycled. This paper will introduce an unfamiliar yet urgent issue, e-waste, and propose a solution for its reduction.

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Contrary to popular belief, most of the electronics that are taken to a recycling center are not recycled there, they are instead exported overseas and illegally dumped. TJ Mccue, writer for Forbes magazine, explains that the average American household has 24 electrical products. According to McCue, “We threw away 142,000 computers and over 416,000 mobile devices every day!” (McCue). E-waste that is exported is generally recycled in primitive and hazardous ways. Consumers are partly to blame for the vast amounts of e-waste produced, we replace our functional, useful products for newer and shinier ones indifferent of the indirect costs. Businesses are also to blame for coercing consumers to purchase their products. As environmental journalist and author Elizabeth Grossman says, “This is a story in which we all take part in.”

So how does it get there? Environmentally friendly citizens who take their used or damaged electrical products to recycling centers might think that it’s going to be recycled at the center, but frequently that e-waste finds itself on shipping containers headed to places like Ghana, China, and India. Journalist Laura Bradley of US News and World Report, explains that e-waste is sent overseas for the same reason jobs are: lower labor costs and less safety regulations (Bradley). The high cost of safely recycling electrical products in developed countries like the United States induces recycling companies to outsource this process to countries with little e-waste regulation. There is however a convention in place to prevent this, Grossman explains that the Basel Convention bans the exportation of hazardous waste including hazardous electrical products, but many recyclers bypass this convention by labeling their hazardous electrical products as ‘used goods’ (152-153).

Once the hazardous waste is shipped it ends up being picked apart by workers like the ones shown in this photograph. In outdoor sites, these workers sit on computer cases while they sort between cables, computer processors, and hard drives, searching for the meager amounts of metal they contain. Once skilled laborers, now by hand they do the laborious task of reducing electrical products to its individual components. According to the Chinese Labor Bulletin, an organization that defends workers’ rights in China, workers at e-waste dumps earn on average seventeen cents an hour (CLB). These people have no other alternative for work and are unaware of the health risks associated with e-waste. The Chinese women shown do not own any protective gear due to their high cost, and are thus exposed to a concoction of poisons.

Workers separate components that contain metal from the rest and those metal containing components are then sent to another area for additional processing. Grossman explains that they are then usually heated over an open flame, or dipped into nitric and hydrochloric acid baths to remove the lead, copper, and silver that are soldered into computer chips, and processors (156-157). After the metals have been removed they are sold to scrap metal dealers. The leftover e-waste is left to disintegrate into the earth and the acid is often dumped in a river or poured onto the ground.

The vast amount of electrical products that are disposed of in hazardous ways ultimately lead to environmental and health consequences; the air is polluted and the water is contaminated, in many e-waste dumps potable water is delivered daily. Disabled World, a news source that provides disability news and information, explains that the continuous exposure to metals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, and brominated flame retardants ultimately lead to the damage of bodily systems such as the immune, reproductive, and central nervous systems (Disabled World). Children are especially vulnerable to health risks because their bodily systems are in development. According to Dr. Marciel V. Maffini, a chemical policy consultant, “Normal brain development is the result of unbothered interaction between cells” (Maffini). The exposure to harmful chemical substances such as lead, which trace amounts of are found in iPhones, disrupt this harmonious process.

Many e-waste workers underestimate the risks associated with extracting metals from electrical products. Environmental journalist Nele Goutier interviewed Alpha Alhassan in 2014, he is one of the 35,000 e-waste workers in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Alhassan has a wife and 6 children to support; when asked why he continues to work Alhassan answered, “I’m not aware of pollution or health risks. I must come here to stay alive” (Goutier). Alhassan’s parental duty is killing him, many workers like him are unaware of the lethal chemicals that are in electrical components.

It may seem as if every electrical product is sent abroad to be picked apart by what can only be called slave labor, but environmentally friendly recycling does take place. Jacopo Ottaviani, writing for Al Jazeera, states that only a small part of e-waste, about 15.5% (in 2014) is recycled with eco-friendly methods (Ottaviani). This percentage needs to increase, the statistical data may make a solution seem quite daunting but it is possible to increase environmentally friendly recycling while simultaneously decreasing e-waste exportation.

First, e-waste should never ever be thrown into the trash. E-waste that is trashed with the tuna casserole end up in the same place, a landfill. Electrical products that end up in landfills are not recycled in any way, shape or form. The chemicals in these products will seep into the earth and damage the region. If you are indifferent about environmental issues, remember that technology trashed contains personal information that can be potentially stolen if not discarded properly, so think selfishly.

If you have an electrical product and it is functioning, what should be done is to sell it, give it to a friend, or donate it. If the product is not functioning, it can be recycled through the e-steward network, an eco-friendly recycling network. According to the e-stewards website, recyclers part of their network do not export their e-waste, instead they cleanly recycle them (e-stewards). Certified e-stewards recyclers follow tough environmental standards as well as worker safety standards. A certified recycling center near you can be found on their website, e-stewards.org. Taking your electrical products to an e-stewards certified recycler will reduce exported e-waste, and you will also be supporting American businesses.

Before dismissing these alternatives because of lack of time, we must remember the boy in the initial picture, the working toddler, and the many Chinese e-waste workers who are exposed to a slow and painful death. These are human beings that suffer because of our failure to properly recycle our electronic waste. British explorer Robert Swan once said, “the greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” If we do not immediately act to reduce the exportation of e-waste it may be too late.

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