According to a report, “Tackling High Tech Trash,”  by Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization,   Americans now own 3 billion electronic products with a turnover rate of about 400 million units annually.   

We now have one computer for every six people on the planet.   This turnover is making a mountain of waste.  The EPA estimates 3.16 million tons of gadgets got pitched in 2007 and 2008, and less than 14 percent of them were recycled.  Even that  piddling 14 percent is not really such a good thing.  We ship much of it to developing countries where it is recycled in ways that are unsafe to the workers and the environment.

Guiyu is one of the biggest e-waste centers of the world. More than a million ton of e-waste is dismantled in this Chinese village every year. Women, children and man work under terrible conditions to extract all the precious metals from circuit boards, computers, and other electronics. They often burn the plastics, circuit boards and ic's in open air without protection in order to extract the melted copper or tin. Despite the ratification of the Basel-agreement, a lot of international branded gadgets end up illegally in Guiyu. This man assembles plastic waste from waste-dumps to try to resell it. (photo credit )

High tech electronics, especially older equipment now in the waste stream, are spewing hazardous and toxic materials like cadmium, lead, mercury, polybrominated diphenylethers, tetrabromobisphenol A, and hexabromocyclododecane.  PVC from wire coating and packaging releases carcinogens when burned.  The list goes on and on.

Reuse trumps recycling.  We should all try to find homes for any gadget we don’t want that still work.  We ought to get as much good out of our gadgets as we can before we discard them, and they start poisoning the world.  The EPA has a list of outlets for recycling, donating or trading in this stuff.  Check out this page.  You’ll be amazed how many corporations are getting into e-cycling.  (I didn’t see RadioShack on the list, but I know they have a trade in policy for used gadgets too.)

More from the Tackling Trash report:

  • 211 million TVs sold worldwide in 2009.  Americans own TVs per household.
  • Apple sold 20 million iPods in the first quarter of 2010.
  • 1.2 billion cell phones sold worldwide in 2009.  About 1/3 of all cell phones sold are now smart phones.

    When we all switched to flat screen, we made another mountain.

I’m not about to give up my cell phone, and I really love listening to recorded books on my iPod.  I’m writing this and you are reading it on computers.  All these gizmos that we suddenly can’t seem to  live without.

I’m trying to use them more mindfully and treat them like the incredibly useful but dangerous devices that they really are.

6 replies

  1. In Europe we have the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directives which means that the European Union have now restricted

    Lead (Pb)
    Mercury (Hg)
    Cadmium (Cd)
    Hexavalent chromium (Cr6+)
    Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB)
    Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE)

    There are also strong moves to collecting the waste by setting waste recovery and recycling targets – does America not have anything like this in operation?

  2. “I’m not about to give up my cell phone,” you wrote. Wha…? I don’t have one and don’t plan on ever having one. Ha! I’d rather have a horse and buggy!

    • I got a cell phone years ago when I was covering long-running board meetings for the Chicago Tribune. I didn’t feel particularly safe calling in stories from phone “booths” on lonely street corners at midnight. It soon insinuated itself into my life.

      With the ability to coordinate on the fly that cell phones make so possible,it helps me fit my career as a freelance writer in and around working on our land and teaching journalism at UW-Platteville. In fact, my husband and I are probably going to let our land line go soon. No smart phones yet, though.

  3. Cell phones have a great deal of use in developing countries too, allowing for the movement of funds to those that need it from relatives, allowing people to set up businesses and a whole host of other opportunities not available before. We tend to think of cell phones as a rich world luxury or necessity as the case maybe but it would seem that is not the case.

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