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If you compute, you pollute: the dark legacy of e-waste and a nation of consumers in denial

Monday, April 14, 2014 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: e-waste, pollution, computers

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(NaturalNews) Chances are excellent that, if you are reading this, you are using some sort of electronic device to do so. Natural News is, after all, an online publication.

And if you are, then you are also most likely one of the billions of people contributing to the ecological, Earth-damaging disaster that is electronic waste -- "e-waste," for short -- because sooner or later, the device you are using, be it a personal computer, tablet, laptop, cell phone or other piece of technology, will end up in a landfill or dump somewhere or, worse, in an open-air burn pit in some developing country.

As Natural News reported previously, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that about 30 million computers are tossed in the U.S. each year; in Europe, about 100 million cell phones are discarded.

Developing world becomes dumping ground for toxic e-waste

In the coming years, as the "Internet of Everything" becomes reality, the amount of e-waste is set to explode. Societies will become even more dependent on electronic, Internet-connected devices, and as they do, millions more tons of this kind of waste will be generated each and every year. The UN's Environment Program estimates, for instance, that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and by 500 percent in India.

By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher.

But only about one-quarter of e-waste is recycled. Most of e-waste winds up in an incinerator, and that's a big problem for the environment and your health. That's because of the hazardous heavy metals -- many of them rare earth metals -- that are contained in every device.

"Electronic waste isn't just waste -- it contains some very toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants," says the group e-Stewards, on its website. "When the latter are burned at low temperatures, they create additional toxins, such as halogenated dioxins and furans -- some of the most toxic substances known to humankind. The toxic materials in electronics can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, and many other health problems if this waste stream is not properly managed. Many of the toxic constituents are elements, which means they never disappear, even though they may change form."

Ruining Asia

The most fertile e-waste dumping grounds are in Asia; China, India and Pakistan are the leading nations where e-waste is routed to burn pits, contaminating the soil, the air, the water and the people with which these toxins come into contact. Ghana, located along the West African coast, is also a major e-waste destination.

Off-loading the toxins

The biggest complaint from groups working to curb the amount of environmental damaged created by e-waste is not so much that wealthier societies are using technology as it was intended, but that, when it comes time to discard it, they are off-loading the worst effects to poorer countries without laws that protect soil, air and water.

In 2008, the CBS program 60 Minutes reported on the trail of e-waste to poorer countries, where workers -- including many children -- disassemble discarded electronic products to mine for valuable, reusable materials. These materials, even when they are not burned, can be toxic over time.

For the report, correspondent Scott Pelley traveled to "one of the most toxic places on Earth -- a place that government officials and gangsters don't want you to see." The location: Guiyu, a dingy town in China where you cannot breathe the air or drink the water. The blood of many children is laced with too much lead (7 out of 10). Pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage. In essence, the town is a nightmare of toxicity.

'Dirty little secret'

What's more, the e-waste "disposal" that is taking place there is a result of the violation of law -- both in the United States and in Europe, where much of the e-waste comes from, as well as in China.

"This is really the dirty little secret of the electronic age," Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel Action Network, a watchdog group named for the treaty that is supposed to stop rich countries from dumping toxic waste on poor ones, told Pelley.

Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist and authority on waste management at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the activities in Guiyu: "The situation in Guiyu is actually pre-capitalist. It's mercantile. It reverts back to a time when people lived where they worked, lived at their shop. Open, uncontrolled burning of plastics. Chlorinated and brominated plastics is known worldwide to cause the emission of polychlorinated and polybrominated dioxins. These are among the most toxic compounds known on earth. We have a situation where we have 21st century toxics being managed in a 17th century environment."

Recycling the proper way

What's the answer? The U.S. -- indeed, the world -- is not simply going to stop using electronics. They have been integral to our societies; our daily lives incorporate so many of them. We need them to do our jobs, even.

Responsible recycling programs that don't engage in the kind of offshore outsourcing of e-waste, but instead disposes of such toxic waste in a responsible, environmentally sustainable way, is the only answer.

But how to create them? In the 60 Minutes story, one "responsible" e-recycler, Executive Recycling, of Englewood, Colo., portrayed itself as a company that advertised itself thusly: "Your e-waste is recycled properly, right here in the U.S. - not simply dumped on somebody else."

But the program's investigation found that a shipping container filled with computer monitors, which are especially hazardous because each picture tube, called a cathode ray tube or CRT, contains several pounds of lead. They can only be exported with special permission from the U.S. government. Only, the Executive Recycling container did get sent to China; 60 Minutes tracked it to Hong Kong, where it was sent illegally.

Here are some ways to do the right thing when it comes to getting rid of your old electronics products:

--Donate for reuse, if possible. Some reputable reuse firms that have vowed not to export e-waste include the National Christina Foundation and World Computer Exchange.

-- Look for responsible e-recyclers in your local area. The most reputable are members of the "e-Steward" network. Find a local one here.

--Take it to a responsible retailer. There are some retailers, like Staples, that have agreed to do the right thing and ensure that products they take in for recycling are not merely dumped on a third-world country. So does Best Buy.

--Mail it. Cell phone recycling can be much easier, because you can actually mail them to responsible e-waste recyclers. Consider contacting Capstone Wireless or Call2Recycle.org.









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