Reducing E-Waste: Manufacturing Electronics as if the Future Mattered
Editor's Note: This article was written by Sue Chiang for Spring 2009 Switzer Foundation Newsletter.
Innovations in technology have to date primarily been driven by consumer demand for smaller, lighter, and faster gadgets, especially those that are loaded with the latest features. As a society, we have benefited from technological advances that increase efficiency, add new communications capabilities, create life-saving devices, and more. However, there is a dark side to the electronics industry that remains hidden as we as consumers happily shop for our shiny new toys: waste.
With the explosion in the types and variety of electronic products, e-waste is the fastest growing portion of the US waste stream. Many electronics commonly contain mercury, lead, cadmium, beryllium, hexavalent chromium, brominated flame retardants and/or other hazardous chemicals. These toxic materials can find their way into our drinking water and into our bodies through the products’ eventual fate in local landfills, incinerators or other common but unsafe forms of disposal. There is also tremendous economic pressure to ship our e-waste to developing countries for sham “recycling” and/or “reuse” programs that are often no more than landfills. Even when actually recycled, the informal recycling sector in countries like China, India and Nigeria do not have adequate equipment and safety protocols to handle these toxic materials.
In September 2008, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that the US has inadequate laws to stop toxic e-waste from being exported to developing countries and that the EPA has failed to enforce the few laws that do exist. These findings were further confirmed in a powerful CBS 60 Minutes piece last November. They tracked shipments of U.S. e-waste being illegally sent to Guiyu, China, revealing the devastating impacts e-waste has on the environment and the health of people living there.
Even legitimate recycling as we currently know it is actually “downcycling” – where it reduces the quality of the material over time. In most cases, the recycled material does not go back into the same level of product, so we are perpetuating the unsustainable practice of producing electronics from finite, virgin materials.
The Center for Environmental Health and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition influence electronics manufacturers to prioritize public health and the environment in their design and material considerations. We believe that producer responsibility and takeback policies support green design because when manufacturers are responsible for recycling their old products they have a financial incentive to redesign them to make them less toxic, and easier (and cheaper) to recycle. Our goal is to move the entire industry from a linear model of production toward a more sustainable, closed-loop system. As consumers, all of us have a role to play as well: consider the “necessity” of purchasing the latest new electronic product; ask manufacturers to take back their products at the end-of-life; and when we do purchase products, buy them from companies who are leaders in environmental and public health issues. [For a list of environmentally preferable computers and monitors, check out www.epeat.net; to view ETBC’s TV report card, go to http://www.takebackmytv.com/pages/report_card_round_up/.]