What’s Driving the E-Waste Crisis?

Huge volumes: The rapid obsolescence of gadgets combined with the astronomically high demand for new technology has created mountains of e-waste. In fact, e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream our society produces.

Toxic design: Electronic equipment contains known toxins, including mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants. These substances can cause cancer and birth-defects. Thus, when this equipment becomes waste, it is toxic waste. When burned, even worse toxins can form such as dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of the most toxic substances known to humankind. Until recently, manufacturers gave little attention to the idea of eliminating toxic materials in their products.

Poor design and complexity: E-waste is full of many different materials (such as multiple kinds of metals, plastics and chemicals) that are mixed, bolted, screwed, snapped, glued or soldered together.  Toxic materials are attached to non-toxic materials, which makes separation of materials for reclamation difficult. Little attention has been paid to designing equipment for recycling or for protecting human health and the environment. Therefore, responsible recycling requires intensive labor and/or sophisticated and costly technologies that safely separate materials.

No financial incentive to recycle: There’s usually not enough value in most electronic waste to cover the costs of responsibly managing it in developed countries, unless laws require such management as a service industry. For this reason it is exported to countries where workers are paid low wages and the infrastructure and legal framework is too weak to protect the environment, workers and communities.

Reuse abuse: Sending equipment and parts for reuse – an important solution – can easily be abused by falsely labeling scrap as reusable or exporting “refurbishable” equipment. Often importing countries are left to clean up the mess of bad batteries, mercury lamps and CRTs. The resulting hazardous waste is dumped in countries lacking any infrastructure to properly manage it. This is usually a violation of the Basel Convention and laws in the importing countries.

Policy of “free trade in toxic waste”: Some countries persist in freely trading in hazardous wastes despite the global norms. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that has failed to ratify the 1989 Basel Convention, an international treaty controlling trade in hazardous waste from richer to poorer countries. In 1995, that treaty adopted a full ban on exports from rich to poorer countries. Although this ban is not yet in full legal force globally, all European Union nations have fully enforced it. On the other hand, the U.S., Canada, Japan and some other developed countries, actively oppose this prohibition of toxics going from developed to developing countries. In Canada, the Basel Convention is not properly implemented, with unique definitions of hazardous e-waste resulting in export practices out of step with other Basel Parties. In these countries, it is perfectly legal for businesses to maximize profit by exporting toxic electronics to developing countries, even when this export is a violation of the laws of importing countries. The export of toxic electronic waste to developing countries disproportionately burdens them with a toxic legacy and allows for externalization of real costs.

Prison laborers employed to process e-waste: Unlike other countries in the world, the U.S. sends much of its hazardous e-waste to U.S. prisons to process in less-regulated environments without the same worker protections and rights afforded in the private sector. Moreover, such operations amount to government subsidies, undermining the development of responsible private-sector recycling infrastructure and distorting the economics of recycling.

Lack of regulation requiring proper management: Many nations either lack adequate regulations for this relatively new waste stream, or lack effective enforcement of new e-waste regulations. In the U.S., federal regulations exempt large volumes of electronic waste from environmental laws. Occupational health and safety agencies are not actively overseeing the exposures occurring in the e-recycling industry. In many jurisdictions, it is still perfectly legal to dispose of toxic e-waste in non-hazardous waste landfills and incinerators, depositing lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, etc. into inappropriate disposal facilities, and failing to reclaim valuable materials.