Electronic Waste Hazards

By Griffin, Donovan | Information Today, January-February 2014 | Go to article overview

Electronic Waste Hazards


Griffin, Donovan, Information Today


* Recent stories about electronics manufacturer Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd. (publicly traded as Foxconn Technology Group) brought the world's attention to the poor working conditions experienced by high-tech workers as they produce parts for many of the world's electronics. But for the great majority of U.S. electronics, their end-of-life circumstances are often more grim than their beginnings.

It's clear that the world's appetite for electronics is growing. While sales for desktop computers have declined, cellphones and tablets continue to sell in greater quantities. IT research company Gartner, Inc. estimates that 1.8 billion mobile phone units, 303 million personal computers, and 184 million tablets were sold worldwide in 2013. Gartner predicts that mobile phone sales will rise to 1.9 billion and tablet sales to 263 million in 2014.

Mobile phones and tablets may not take up as much space in a landfill as a desktop computer, but more of them are thrown out each year. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that while the average life of a desktop is around 12.25 years, the life of a mobile device is less than 5 years on average. Not only are record-breaking numbers of these devices being produced, they're becoming the dominant electronic device of our time. They reach their end-of-life management stage in less than half the time as the former dominant device, the desktop computer.

Electronic waste already accounts for 1% to 2% of the solid municipal waste stream and is one of the fastest-growing categories of waste in the United States, according to the EPA. But the items considered to be e-waste (loosely defined as consumer or business electronics near the end of their useful life) are some of the most valuable--and toxic--items to be found in a landfill.

In a given pile of e-waste, one is likely to find both rare earth metals, such as tantalum or neodymium, and precious metals, including gold and silver. Large, expensive machines that are rare in the U.S. but relatively common in Europe can safely break down piles of e-waste to retrieve components and materials that can be reused or sold as commodities or scrap.

Toxic Tech

But machines aren't the only way to break down e-waste into its valuable pieces. A fairly common tactic is to separate materials by hand. "There are so many chemicals in your average computer that to actually recycle that thing, to take it apart, would expose the worker to a variety of chemicals that have proven to be hazardous to human health," says David Pellow, a professor at the University of Minnesota.

Because of this, 25 states in the U.S. have passed laws governing some aspect of e-waste, though the regulation levels of different states vary in scope. On top of the state regulations on e-waste, workers in the U.S. are protected by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) from being exposed to hazardous materials. Foreign workers in the countries where U.S. e-waste actually does collect, however, don't enjoy the same protection.

Legally and illegally exported e-waste from the U.S. and Europe can end up in any of several major dumping grounds (Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; and New Delhi are major centers for e-waste collection) where the conditions surrounding workers and methods used for extraction range from unsafe to outright lethal. In these areas, Pellow says, "[P]eople are manually, with very basic tools, disassembling this waste and melting down various components that can be used in remanufacturing." He says workers risk exposure to chemicals with little protection for their health and lack any kind of collective bargaining power they might use to diminish their exposure.

In Accra, piles of electronics set on fire to obtain copper wiring in many electronics are often tended by children. In other places, components of a circuit board are scavenged with highly dangerous techniques, including boiling to extract metals or using acid to expose gold. …

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