Taking out the e-trash

The past decade has been marked by a rapid advance in consumer technology. The proliferation of personal gadgets, such as iPhones and tablets, has made our lives better in many ways. We have an inexhaustible wealth of information at our fingertips, practically all the time. We can communicate with people across the globe at lightning speed, and we can keep ourselves constantly entertained. While there are plenty of perceivable benefits of personal tech, there are also potent problems piling up that most of us aren’t well acquainted with.

The term “e-waste” describes all of our discarded electronic equipment — cell phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, televisions and the like. Most e-waste gets loaded into landfills or cast into incinerators. Landfills are the lesser of the two evils because when e-waste is burned, the fragile plastic and aluminum casings that form our electronic devices are ruptured, releasing lethal chemical cocktails into the environment. Even so, landfills are not a safe alternative. Uncontainable contaminants seep out of e-waste shells and sour the soil and water with lead, cadmium and mercury.

In response to the devastating environmental consequences of toxic tech, 25 states have passed mandatory e-waste recycling laws. While local legislation is effective for preventing local contamination, it does not fix the pollution issue entirely. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of all “recycled” e-waste in the United States is exported to lesser developed nations, where it can be dumped into unprotected open spaces, such as fields and wetlands. Environments that once provided for native people are being converted into graveyards for our gadgets. Local economies in places such as Ghana and Sangrampur, India that used to revolve around agriculture are becoming increasingly dependent on salvaged e-waste trade. African and Asian countries that serve as the developed world’s e-waste receptacles are less equipped to safely discard the material than are the producing countries. Native people in such places scour through mountains of outdated doodads in search of copper, cadmium and other salable materials. In the process, they are exposed to hormone-disrupting flame retardants, poisonous cyanide plumes, carcinogens and neurotoxins, among other lethal hazards. Needless to say, the vast majority of scrap salvagers do not earn enough to be able to afford iPhones.

The inequity of the e-waste trade is self-evident, and the world has attempted to mitigate the issue with an international treaty. The Basel Convention is an international agreement aimed at preventing developed nations from dumping their e-waste on lesser developed countries. The treaty attempts to minimize the distance that hazardous waste can travel before it has to be safely disposed of, thus protecting local environments from being degraded by distant consumers. Unfortunately, the U. S. has signed but not ratified the Basel Convention, and a majority of the country’s e-waste (50 million tons a year and growing) continues to accumulate in African and Asian countries.

So what can we do to make sure our tech doesn’t become an environmental wreck? There are a plethora of electronic recycling centers out there, but only a select few practice safe, domestic disposal. Recycling services offered by entities like Best Buy and Waste Management often export the materials.

The best option for disposing of your old electronics is to take them to an organization with a zero-landfill policy and a commitment to local recycling. One such organization is the Electroregeneration Society right here in Salt Lake City. They are a non-profit organization that recycles and refurbishes e-waste, free of cost. They sell repurposed products at a fraction of the original cost, reducing the unnecessary proliferation of brand new electronics. Additionally, they trade refurbished cell phones, TVs and laptops for volunteer work.

Technology has the potential to connect the world and greatly improve the quality of our collective lives. But just like anything else, the benefits of technological development have to be weighed against the drawbacks. We are beginning to realize that our modern conveniences come at a great expense to impoverished people around the planet, and now we have to take responsibility for our actions. I am not advocating a return to the stone age by any means, but I do believe that we should inhibit the generation of e-waste until we figure out what to do with the 1 billion tons that we already have. Although this will require national and international regulations on e-waste, we can do our part by taking our old electronics to environmentally and morally responsible recycling centers.

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