Perils of Electronics Recycling

Ugh. From an AP article about electronic recycling:

Most Americans think they’re helping the earth when they recycle their old computers, televisions and cell phones. But chances are they’re contributing to a global trade in electronic trash that endangers workers and pollutes the environment overseas.

Discarded electronics pile up at a recycling event Thursday in Bloomington, Minnesota.

While there are no precise figures, activists estimate that 50 to 80 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronics collected for recycling in the U.S. each year ends up overseas. Workers in countries such as China, India and Nigeria then use hammers, gas burners and their bare hands to extract metals, glass and other recyclables, exposing themselves and the environment to a cocktail of toxic chemicals.

I don’t remember to whom I was talking about this, but they mentioned that their primary concern about the OLPC program was adding a bunch of toxic e-waste into the cycle, harming those who will end up being tasked with the disassembly of the units. (The XO is thankfully “non-toxic,” according to their FAQ, although it doesn’t appear they have a recycling program implemented yet. None of this is to pick on the OLPC project in particular; in fact, it’s nice that the overall charitable nature of the project has caused us to be hyper-critical of its impact.)

Anyway, back on target: this is geek equivalent of ship breaking. I have to say I’m on board with the idea presented at the end of the article about take-back programs from original manufacturers. Who better to break apart the units than those that made them? And how better to provide them incentive to make them less toxic in the first place?

Destination of ‘recycled’ electronics may surprise you [AP/CNN]

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4 Responses to Perils of Electronics Recycling

  1. Cory Doctorow says:

    “I don’t remember to whom I was talking about this”

    Ahem!

  2. dculberson says:

    This is something that’s close to my heart… I used to be in the computer industry and have a friend that still does computer recycling. He and his two employees dismantle the stuff by hand and sell the components to various (local-ish) places. Unfortunately, the sources they’ve typically relied upon (government and corporate) have started requiring that the equipment be shredded. He can’t dismantle shreds into their components. It’s a massive waste, because it eliminates any potentially reusable equipment and makes it so only the biggest (and most likely to ship out of the country) recyclers can handle it.

    His shop isn’t clean but it also isn’t a toxic morass. And a lot of the stuff that passes through gets resold intact so it saves resources versus dismantling, recyling, and being re-made into the exact same thing. (How different is a full-size 19″ server rack going to be?!)

    He’s planning to retire next year. It’s a shame, really; I think they fulfill a valuable part of our electronic “food chain.”

  3. Joel Johnson says:

    Oh, heh. Sorry, Cory. You’re so forgettable!

  4. claud9999 says:

    The e-waste problem is not exactly new news, but there are some interesting developments including the suggestion that the lead used in the paint on the recalled toys may, in fact, have come from e-waste recycling facilities. Irony. (Sorry, I can’t seem to find the ref; apologies if I learned about the above from boingboing and this is old news. E-mail me if you want me to search my archives for a ref.)

    Regarding OLPC, are they still using styrofoam packaging? They really need to go with some all-cardboard packaging model:

    http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Image:AP1_18.jpg

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