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The Scope of US E-Waste 249

Posted by Soulskill
from the out-of-sight-out-of-mind dept.
theodp writes "Every day, Americans toss out more than 350,000 cell phones and 130,000 computers, making electronic waste the fastest-growing part of the US garbage stream. A lot of the world's e-waste is exported to Guiyu, China, where peasants heat circuit boards over coal fires to recover lead (a 15" computer monitor can pack up to 7 lbs. of Pb), while others use acid to burn off bits of gold. Guiyu's willingness to deal with lead, mercury and other toxic materials generates $75 million a year for the village, but as a result. Guiyu is slowly poisoning itself with the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. The village experiences elevated rates of miscarriages, and its children suffer from an extremely high rate of lead poisoning. TIME suggests checking out recycling brokers and accredited e-stewards the next time you're ready to toss a gizmo."
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The Scope of US E-Waste

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  • by line-bundle (235965) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:16AM (#26407301) Homepage Journal

    What's wrong with you people?

    • by nurb432 (527695) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:21AM (#26407325) Homepage Journal

      What's wrong with you people?

      I suppose its better the iWaste

    • by SirLurksAlot (1169039) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:27AM (#26407353)

      Not exactly, there is a difference between throwing away organic waste and electronic waste. The organic waste will at least decompose at some point, whereas the e-waste has to go through quite a bit of processing in order to be recycled. It is also difference from other non-organic waste such as scrap metal and plastic. At least that can be recycled relatively easy (as compared to e-waste). The "e" is appropriate, if somewhat over-used.

      • by Kindaian (577374)

        The bigger diference isn't the degradation rate...

        Because everything will eventualy will be recycled naturally...

        The issue is the toxicity of the materials will waiting for the "natural" recycling. ;)

      • by Znork (31774)

        whereas the e-waste has to go through quite a bit of processing

        Still, it contains higher concentrations of metals than many ores that can be profitably processed. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to treat it as raw ore material and just dump it in an ore smelter at a couple of thousand degrees. I guess it might contain problematic compounds that would complicate extraction, but compared to other ores it shouldn't be an insurmountable problem.

        • by Neoprofin (871029)
          There are plenty of operations that more or less shred the materials and then seperate them using a variety of systems such as eddy currents to split out various useful thing. Throwing it direct in the smelter is a no go though, there's far too many batteries, glass, plastics, and any number of other things that are not only hazardous to burn in an uncontrolled setting (or one not specifically controlled) and that make extraction of useful materials afterwards less than cost effective.
  • by sheehaje (240093) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:17AM (#26407303)

    This lead is then formed into figurines, painted, and sold as toys.

  • TV's, old computers, harddrives, broken VCR's... I don't know what to do with the stuff.

    If you think one of these so called certified e-cyclers is not simply shipping the stuff of to China, think again. Every report I have seen on these outfits has traced the donated stuff overseas.

    • by larien (5608)
      To be fair, how many reports saying "this organisation is doing what it says" would get published? People aren't interested in people doing what they say, they're interested in scandals of corporate irresponsibility.
    • by Xabraxas (654195)
      There is a local company around me that offers e-cycling and they guarantee that it is not shipped overseas to be processed. They claim everything is reprocessed in the US and then sent overseas to be used in new electronic manufacturing. I guess I'll have to look into it more to see how truthful these claims are.
      • by Neoprofin (871029)
        I can personally vouch for the company that I've worked for for the last four years. I know, literally, where every peace of equipment and commodity was headed when it left our docks.

        There are always some problems though for instance:

        India is the center of modern plastics recycling at the moment, most U.S. vendors are unwilling to take the kind of low grade plastics found in most home electronics.

        Resale. Given a standard 2-3 year refresh cycle on computer hardware, most of the equipment companies
  • Out of date info (Score:5, Interesting)

    by duffbeer703 (177751) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:26AM (#26407347)

    China hasn't been accepting E-Waste for at least 18 months. Now it goes mostly to West Africa.

  • Charities (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:29AM (#26407363)

    Hi,

    I am a voluntary sys admin for a mental health charity, Contact, http://www.contactmorpeth.org.uk/

    We take in local donations of unwanted PCs, refurbish them and give them away to people with mental health problems, their children or their carers. Some people have told me that their free PC was a life changing event (once they'd got broadband working).

    Surely in America you'd be able to start up a similar scheme for charitable donations?

    HTH,

    Ian

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Penguinisto (415985)

      Surely in America you'd be able to start up a similar scheme for charitable donations?

      Yep [freegeek.org] - we do.

      /P

    • yes we could, but remember, this is america youre talking about. we have cell phone recycling programs where you can make a dollar or two from donating your old phone, and we have thrift stores to donate your old computer to, (not to mention churches and charities) all of which are easily contactable. but people will still just throw their stuff in the garbage to save thirty seconds of their time (even tho "being green" is in right now many people still throw away a ridiculous amount of garbage.)
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Aladrin (926209)

        I worked at a computer store a few years back. We had 5 complete, working PCs they wanted to donate to a local thrift-store/charity. We had to jump through hoops to donate them. We never tried again because it was just too much hassle.

        Don't assume that your area is the same as all others.

        • by gbjbaanb (229885)

          true, whilst getting rid of the PC is relatively easy - it becomes a major hassle if you're giving away HDDs too. I'm sure the charities won't be too impressed to start receiving lots of PCs, none of which came with a drive.

    • by Neoprofin (871029)
      The problem is the massive amount of overhead involved. There are countless numbers of local, and I would assume plenty of larger, charities. Unfortunately if you're the budget officer or IT manager for Faceless Megacorp it's not really in your interest to do anything but get the equipment out of your building as cheaply and as quickly as possible.

      The company I work with works with a lot of donations, and frankly companies that want to donate their equipment are generally doing it for tax reasons and are
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by sponga (739683)

      They already exist and have for quite some time, especially out here in California the epicenter for computer development and waste.

      Mainly churches have been the center piece for this volunteer business and salvation army.

      Some woman in downtown Los Angeles does this on her free time accepting these old computers, they strip them and see what parts still work. They rebuild another computed and sell them for very cheap to people who are poor. It allows a lot of Mexican children to finally have a computer to a

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DoofusOfDeath (636671)

      We take in local donations of unwanted PCs, refurbish them and give them away to people with mental health problems,

      You're giving Windows boxes to people who are already unstable? Are you trying to push them completely over the edge???

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:34AM (#26407387)

    Cell providers try to get used phones off the market by setting up charity drop boxes for women's shelters with the idea being that the phones actually go to the shelters. In actual fact the phones get dumped overseas, and the charity receives a pittance for use of their name on the side of the box. Cell providers benefit because this forces people to but new phones which are tied to contracts.

    There are legit phones for shelters programs, but if it says something like "only put the phone in the box, not the charger" then the phones will just end up overseas, not reused.

  • by LingNoi (1066278) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:37AM (#26407395)

    If they're generating millions from e-waste we throw away then why is it the wests fault that they are polluting themselves?

    If they dealt with the waste in a responsible manner and took even basic precautions then they wouldn't be polluting their own villages.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      If they're generating millions from e-waste we throw away then why is it the wests fault that they are polluting themselves?

      If they dealt with the waste in a responsible manner and took even basic precautions then they wouldn't be polluting their own villages.

      Because, rather than deal with it responsibly ourselves, we've outsourced the problem to people apparently incapable or unwilling to deal with it responsibly. Recycling that involves toxic substances is a job that probably no one wants to do if they understand the personal risks involved, but someone has to do it so it falls to the ignorant and desperate.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by TrekkieGod (627867)

        Because, rather than deal with it responsibly ourselves, we've outsourced the problem to people apparently incapable or unwilling to deal with it responsibly.

        It's not like we're forcing them to take it with the might of our military (not that we could). They want it. There's a transaction where we give them money and they take care of the trash. Once we give them the money, our responsibility is complete and it's their responsibility to deal with the trash.

        If they decide this deal isn't in their best interests, they can simply stop being in this business (which would force us to deal with it responsibly or find someone else willing to be in the business). Or

        • by Junior J. Junior III (192702) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @01:14PM (#26407885) Homepage

          Right, they want it. They want a job so they can make money so they won't starve.

          Do they understand the risks and threats associated with that job? Based on how they perform the job, it would seem that they do not have a full understanding of what they have agreed to do.

          For someone who does have such an understanding, what exactly would you say are our obligations? Apparently, you would appear to be taking the position that our only obligation is to give them money for doing the job, and that's it. I don't think that's sufficient. If we're paying someone to clean up our messes, we need to make sure that they can do the job properly, and that we provide them with information for how to protect their health and safety, and preserve their environment. Otherwise, we're not solving the problem, we're simply passing the buck.

          "They want us to" is a total cop-out. Responsibility for dealing with toxic substances is not all in one court or the other, it is shared. If we do not recognize our obligations and hold ourselves accountable to meet them, then surely we will fail, and needless suffering and damage will be the result.

          • Right, they want it. They want a job so they can make money so they won't starve.

            I'm not talking about the people recovering the stuff. I'm talking about the company that dumped it there. The company that is probably paying those people to recover metals from the trash.

            Do they understand the risks and threats associated with that job? Based on how they perform the job, it would seem that they do not have a full understanding of what they have agreed to do.

            Whether they have an understanding or not wouldn't matter if they can't find other jobs. But the point is, would a company in the west be able to dump the trash somewhere and then pay its citizens to do it? There are regulations that prevent them from doing so, there are government agencies that ensure that the work e

  • How much of that $75 Million could be plowed back into making the whole process safer?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by sillybilly (668960)
      Old electrolytic capacitors leak toxic chemicals. A capacitor popping and drying out is a leading cause of electronics failure. If that stuff gets on you or you inhale the vapors it's bad. How can you make the process safer? Use robots to pick at the stuff? They are too expensive for now, and not smart enough, without enough dexterity.

      Maybe use huge smelter to melt down and combust all the epoxy boards, plastic casings and everything, including dioxins to carbon dioxide and slag. The slag will contain mo
  • Willingness? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Gothmolly (148874) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:42AM (#26407413)

    Guiyu's willingness to deal with lead, mercury and other toxic materials...

    There's the problem. Don't do that.

  • by geekmux (1040042) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:56AM (#26407479)

    We can't get but a handful of states in the US to put deposits on bottles, much less give people incentives to actually recycle their electronics. Put a damn $50 deposit/tax on new computer sales, and THEN maybe you'll have people recycling. Hell, we have core fees on automotive parts, why not electronics?

    Laws and fines rarely push people to do this type of thing, and forget the "think of the children" ads. People get off their ass and do something when it benefits them directly, and nothing speaks louder than cash in hand.

  • by KlaymenDK (713149) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @11:59AM (#26407487) Journal

    TIME suggests checking out recycling brokers and accredited e-stewards the next time you're ready to toss a gizmo.

    Even better: unless it really is broken beyond repair, re-use your old stuff or give it to someone who still can get use out of it. Freecycle what you can, recycle the rest, and throw away as little as possible.

    PS! Read my tagline! ;-)

  • by commodore64_love (1445365) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @12:01PM (#26407501) Journal

    There are a lot of people who actually want this stuff, and they are willing to pay the cost of shipping/handling to get it. I've asked a few of them: Why do you want an old gadget?

    (1) "I need a PC that I can experiment upon."

    (2) "I am a collector of old electronics."

    (3) "My camcorder broke and I need a new magnetic head to fix it."

    (4) "I need a cheap laptop for typing notes."

    And on and on and on. Like the old saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure. Rather than toss your old gadgets in the junk, sell it on ebay for 99 cents + shipping. Somebody will buy it. Recyle.

    • by LVSlushdat (854194) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @12:59PM (#26407825)

      I used to do that too, but now eBay in their infinite greed, is forcing everybody to take PayPal.. Which means the fact that you put "AS-IS" in your auction description, and the fact that there are NO returns, is ignored by PayPal, who cheerfully refunds the buyers money, and usually you are out your item AND your $$$. When I sold "as-is" electronics, I described the item extensively, took lots of pix, and took checks/mo's only... Worked fine, from 1998 to now... Now with the inmates running the asylum at eBay, I'm steering clear of it until/if the eBay Board of Directors finally say "enough" and can JD..

    • by Neoprofin (871029)
      The problem is that there are also junk hoarders. People who fill their homes with this technology that they managed to get another year or two of use out of, and then it ends up in the garbage.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ThousandStars (556222)
      Virtually no one is using the millions of 386 and 486s out there. At some point, the items sold on eBay will end up being effectively worthless, and the question is, what then?
  • 60 minutes (Score:5, Informative)

    by mattwarden (699984) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @12:08PM (#26407537) Homepage

    > TIME suggests checking out recycling brokers and accredited e-stewards the
    > next time you're ready to toss a gizmo.

    I guess TIME doesn't watch 60 minutes [cbsnews.com].

    '"This is a photograph from your yard, the Executive Recycling yard," Pelley told Richter, showing him a photo we'd taken of a shipping container in his yard. "We followed this container to Hong Kong."'

  • 350,000 a day? or 127,750,000 per year... as of July 2008 there are 303,824,640 people (adults and children). So these guys believe that if every person in the US has a phone, 1/3 of them toss it out every year?

    Maybe someone ought to be doing something to reduce the number of phones we "retire" every year. Since most cell phone contracts in the US are 2 years, and the phone is "free" with a 2year contract, one might be able to assume that most of the US retires their phone every two years.... I know ma

  • by marco.antonio.costa (937534) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @12:16PM (#26407575)
    Soon the dollar won't buy anything, let alone electronics. I wouldn't worry about it.
  • Blame for everyone? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by z3dm4n (843603)

    Oddly enough, I did a research paper on this subject my last semester. The problem with e-waste being exported is mainly that there is no real guidelines for exporting electronic waste. Most of the material is considered hazardous because of the metals and BFR's used in manufacturing.

    There are companies who say they recycle the products and then just ship the junk over-seas. It's an "Out of sight, out of mind" type of thinking that is impacting other places around the world. Not only that, but most consumer

    • by Neoprofin (871029)
      There are in fact plenty of guidelines for exporting electronic waste, but just like everything else there's plenty of loopholes, most of which include just lying on paperwork.

      Tip number 1: Don't call it waste. If you don't call it waste it's not waste, it's just electronics, and everyone likes electronics right?

      It's sickening the lengths people go to to save a buck.
  • by Stiletto (12066) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @12:34PM (#26407673)

    I've always said, companies should be responsible for the entire lifecycle of any product they produce, including its safe disposal. The way things are now, they are allowed to just dump that cost onto the public, and everyone has to pay the price of mass-consumption, which is mass-disposal.

    If your company's monitor costs $30 to dispose of properly, that cost should be your company's responsibility. Of course, the company will just pass the cost on to the customer, but that's OK, since it's the customer who's wallet is hit, not the general public. Products that are toxic and cause cancer if they seep into the groundwater SHOULD cost people much, much more, to disincentivise companies from making them in the first place. Maybe higher prices for toxic difficult-to-dispose goods would get people to repair things instead of just tossing them into the bin. At least the extra cost would get them to consider that whatever they are buying is expensive to toss into the Earth.

    As it is now, people just buy the cheapest product they can find without regard for the damage it does to the environment, because that damage is done to "those other people somewhere". Make that damage hit their wallet, and you'll see change.

  • by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @12:48PM (#26407767)

    Let's just pick an appropriate spot in the worlds oceans, and build one of these with the E-Waste: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_reef [wikipedia.org]

    Divers would love to see baby Moray eels popping out of the slot in old VCRs.

    I wouldn't worry about the hazardous material being toxic. Many of the oceans' species are millions of years old, they know how to deal with toxic waste.

    Probably.

    • by gbjbaanb (229885)

      I wouldn't worry about the hazardous material being toxic. Many of the oceans' species are millions of years old, they know how to deal with toxic waste.

      and if they don't, the new Godzilla species will come round and tell you off, well - tell our children off, but who cares about those scrounging parasites anyway :)

  • by Toonol (1057698) on Sunday January 11, 2009 @01:44PM (#26408075)
    Don't forget that the FCC-Mandated digital TV switch will likely result in tens of millions of perfectly good televisions going into the trash heap this year. Legally enforced obsolescence has some side effects.
  • On one hand, it is obvious that criminals are running these recycling operations and there needs to be stronger environmental regulations to make sure it is done safely. The situation in China is shocking and particularly there are technologies avialable to keep the toxins out of the environment, but they are not being used. Recycling done properly can be done safely and cleanly with no release of waste. We should not give up recycling, we desperately need to continue recycling, but we need to make sure it

    • "It is possible that the earths supply of iron and copper will be depleted by the end of this century."

      Ok, I can understand copper, but came-on, iron?! That is a bit too much. Next time you'll be saying we are running out of silicon.

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