"E-Waste" Polluting Poor Communities

Mon Apr. 10, 2006 5:32 PM EDT

Technology is improving faster than we can get our hands on it, and little thought is being given to the mountains of discarded electronics that are accumulating. Salon is currently tackling the question of electronic waste, and reports that the majority of old electronics are shipped off to poor countries across the globe, for cheap recycling.

Despite the fact that the recycling of highly toxic materials has been banned in China since 2000, the practice of environmentally-unsound recycling continues. And the reality of these dangerous procedures isn't pretty:

In Taizhou's [China] outdoor workshops, people bang apart the computers and toss bits of metal into brick furnaces that look like chimneys. Split open, the electronics release a stew of toxic materials -- among them beryllium, cadmium, lead, mercury and flame retardants -- that can accumulate in human blood and disrupt the body's hormonal balance. Exposed to heat or allowed to degrade, electronics' plastics can break down into organic pollutants that cause a host of health problems, including cancer. Wearing no protective clothing, workers roast circuit boards in big, uncovered wok like pans to melt plastics and collect valuable metals. Other workers sluice open basins of acid over semiconductors to remove their gold, tossing the waste into nearby streams. Typical wages for this work are about $2 to $4 a day.
According to the EPA, only about ten percent of electronics are properly recycled, accounting for approximately 2 million tons of e-waste dumped in U.S. landfills each year. And despite claims by companies that they recycle old parts, it's difficult to determine where the materials actually end up, leading to a growing U.S. problem—which isn't helped by the absence of a national system for handling the waste. However, for now, you can find a list of responsible e-cyclers here.