Public Influence on Corporate Conscience

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As long as demand for new technology is louder than concern over the disposal of old technology, corporations won’t make responsible clean-up a high priority. Without pressure from the public, corporations in the U.S. have very little incentive to change their business practices to incorporate more environmentally- and health-conscious practices. What incentive they do have comes from us. As long as we have money in our pockets to spend on their gadgets, we have influence over the corporations.

Here are some ways you can influence corporations and do right by the planet while still getting the latest gadgets.

  1. Contact your local legislature and encourage them to pass laws regulating the transfer of toxic waste, such as e-waste, to foreign countries. The Basal Convention of 1989 saw many countries around the world agree to stop exporting toxic waste beyond their own borders. However, the U.S. has still not agreed to it. Click here for links to contact your elected officials.
  2. Ensure that your old devices are recycled properly. e-Stewards Certifications are given to electronics recycling facilities that commit to proper care of the materials and the workers handling them. Click here to find an e-Stewards certified recycling center near you.
  3. Consider purchasing devices from companies that participate in Product Takeback programs. According to the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center (PPRC), Product Takeback programs “give manufacturers the physical responsibility for products and/or packaging at the end of their useful lives. By accepting used products, manufacturers can acquire low-cost feedstock for new manufacture or remanufacture, and offer a value-added service to the buyer” (PPRC 2004). Takeback programs, while currently voluntary in the U.S., encourage companies to:
  • Reuse material from older devices
  • Develop new materials that are easier to reuse or safer to dispose of when manufacturing new devices
  • Invest in technologies with longer shelf lives

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By following these tips, and putting to work that mega-processor in your new smartphone, you can make a positive impact on the problem of e-waste.

Sources:

Peiry, K. “Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.” United Nations Environment Programme. 2008. Web. 27 Mar 2012.

Product Stewardship for Manufacturers.” Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center. 2004. Web. 27 Mar 2012.

E-Recycling Options

There aren’t  a lot of good options available to consumers looking to get rid of their old electronic devices. But there are some. It’s important to do your research in order to avoid being misled by companies that are looking to cash in on the “green” movement without putting in the work to actually be green.

In addition to environmental concerns, you should also be concerned with the theft of any data left on your old devices, like your computer’s hard drive. Programs claim to be recycling in a safe and conscientious manner, but the truth is that many don’t take the steps to ensure their promises. So read on for tips, and keep a sharp eye out as you hand over your old devices.

Recycling

Many companies take advantage of developing countries’ willingness to take toxic loads of e-waste. Developing countries need the revenue that comes with accepting the waste. Companies like the fact that they don’t have to pay much. Disposal costs in these countries are cheaper due to the lack of regulation and adequate safe facilities for recycling. Life is tough enough in these countries. Citizens there have to be more concerned with putting food in their children’s bellies than with finding work that is guaranteed to be safe.

Workers in these “recycling” facilities are often given no training and no protective equipment. They handle toxic substances with bare hands and then burn what’s not easily retrieved. So these workers (and people downwind from the facility) get dosed with some nasty stuff on a regular basis. Unfortunately they don’t have much recourse since no laws exist to help protect them. And the companies that send their waste overseas aren’t likely to change their ways if it raises costs for them. The Story of Stuff Project has created a short animated movie that follows the “life” of a device and highlights the not-so-efficient cycle of e-waste recycling.

http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies/embed_SoE.html

But before you vow to hoard every old device instead of letting it poison a child in China, rest assured that there are responsible recycling programs out there. Recently a certification program has emerged that gives a thumbs up to companies that are doing things right. This certification, e-Stewards Certification, ensures that e-waste is handled in a safe and responsible manner. This includes not only worker safety, but also environmental responsibility and information protection. Click here to find a recycling center near you that has been e-Stewards Certified.

Donating

You also have options to donate your old devices. Digitaltips.org offers links to various organizations that will take your devices and pass them on to people and businesses around the world who can put them to good use. But be courteous about this.

Donation collection sites around the world are full of “donated” devices that are useless–broken or so obsolete they can’t be used. That leaves those facilities facing the daunting task of how to dispose of them. See the cycle?

The lesson here is that as long as you do your research to find reputable companies, you can feel good that your unwanted electronic devices aren’t going anywhere that will harm your private information, other people, or the environment.

Lead Poisoning from E-Waste in Developing Countries

There are negative health effects from improper techniques of recycling e-waste. They’re related to workers’ exposure to toxic substances such as heavy metals. In particular, lead is a major player in the hazards of e-waste.

What does lead do to the body? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),

Once taken into the body, lead distributes throughout the body in the blood and is accumulated in the bones.  Depending on the level of exposure, lead can adversely affect the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental systems and the cardiovascular system.  Lead exposure also affects the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood.  The lead effects most commonly encountered in current populations are neurological effects in children and cardiovascular effects (e.g., high blood pressure and heart disease) in adults.  Infants and young children are especially sensitive to even low levels of lead, which may contribute to behavioral problems, learning deficits and lowered IQ.” (EPA 2012)

The majority of U.S. e-waste goes to developing regions of Asia and Africa. These regions lack both an awareness of the hazards they face, and the regulations necessary to keep them safe. Blood-lead levels in children from towns that recycle e-waste are higher than those from towns without recycling plants. Much higher. Dangerously high. That’s because their methods for recycling often consist of sitting over a smoky pile of burning electronics, waiting to pluck precious metals from the flames as they melt.

Studies have been conducted in China, comparing the blood-lead levels of children in Guiyu, a community with e-waste recycling facilities, to Chendian, a community without these facilities. “[W]e have shown that the residents in Guiyu had high incidence of skin damage, headaches, vertigo, nausea, chronic gastritis, and gastric and duodenal ulcers, all of which may be caused by the primitive recycling processing of e-waste.” (Huo 2007)

A worker bakes circuit boards in order to retrieve tiny bits of precious metal. (Huo)

How does this affect you? Most likely, it doesn’t. In the U.S. we have laws that help limit our exposure to lead. But flip that question on its head. How do your actions affect the people of developing nations?

The answer is that every time we throw out our old cell phones, keyboards, computers, or other outdated electronics, we may be contributing to the declining health of hundreds of community members who cannot afford to stop working in e-waste recycling facilities.

Sources:

“Lead in Air: Health.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. 13 Mar 2012. Web. 14 Mar 2012.

Huo X, Peng L, Xu X, Zheng L, Qiu B, et al. 2007. Elevated Blood Lead Levels of Children in Guiyu, an Electronic Waste Recycling Town in China. Environ Health Perspect 115(7): doi:10.1289/ehp.9697

An Overview View of E-Waste

We’ve created a massive amount of disposable technology. As the new phone, television, or computer comes out, we buy it and toss our old device. For example, millions of working televisions were discarded when broadcasters made the switch from analog to digital signals. Efforts are under way to improve access to and efficiency of recycling facilities. But currently, the majority of our electronic waste is still ending up in our regular trash bins. This electronic waste, or e-waste, is piling up in landfills and causing some unintended health and environmental problems.

Heavy metals, primarily lead but also cadmium, barium, and others, leach out of the discarded devices and into the ground and ground water. Many “recycling” programs are woefully inadequate and result in workers being exposed to these toxic elements by improperly handling or burning these devices. These programs often focus on sending waste overseas to countries with less stringent environmental laws.

Other programs have better track records of health and environmental responsibility. Generally, the less outsourcing to developing countries for recycling, the better the program is.

Throughout Europe, laws are being passed requiring companies to take more responsibility for the waste that they help create. Many participate in programs such as product takeback programs. These programs require that companies directly address the concerns of disposing of or recycling their own devices as the devices become obsolete. This higher standard of accountability is encouraging companies to develop products with less hazardous materials and develop programs to better handle old devices.

Instead of shipping old devices to developing countries to be destroyed, some groups are opting to send those devices to developing countries that can put them to use (think hand-me-downs for digital products).

The world of communications has made our world smaller and smaller. There’s no denying that our actions have lasting and sometimes troubling consequences on society and the planet. By learning about these consequences and then using our voices and our dollars, we can encourage manufacturers to research and develop safer technologies.

There’s no reason that we shouldn’t enjoy the advances of technology and all its benefits. But it’s time we took responsibility for the costs as well. Read on to learn more about e-waste and what you can do to reduce its negative impact.