Science, Tech & Environment

Here's how to keep that old cell phone you're about to toss from becoming toxic e-waste in a developing country

Ghana Waste.jpg

The Agbogbloshie e-waste dump site outside of Accra, Ghana in 2012.

Credit:

Lantus/Wikimedia Commons

For those that simply must have Apple's latest iPhone, what will you do with your old phone? Many folks will just put it in a drawer for a bit ... and then throw it away.

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

With all the hype about the latest tech gadgets, it's no wonder we don't think much about our e-trash. "We've got more gadgets, so e-waste is increasing almost exponentially," says David Biello of Scientific American

The United States is a leader in producing e-waste. But the countries of the European Union and Japan aren't far behind. Don't forget China, Biello says: "Despite being a developing country and one that's suffered some of the worst pollution from the e-waste problem, they are contributing more and more to the problem as their consumer class grows."

So what's a green-minded consumer to do? 

If you are an iPhone fan, Biello says the first step is to take advantage of the Apple take-back program. Apple has stepped up its recycling efforts in part, according to Biello, because of pressure from environmental groups — and perhaps because current Apple CEO Tim Cook had long experience in the supply chain side of the business.  

Apple has joined forces with e-Stewards, a non-profit organization attempting to reduce e-waste and make tech companies accountable. "That means re-purposing the gadgets," says Biello, "stripping it of its information and sellling it to another customer as a refurbished piece of equipment. Or breaking it down into its component parts in a way that doesn't release a lot of toxic material into the environment." 

But eventually refurbished phones die, too, and often they end up in places like the large toxic waste dump in Agbogbloshie outside of Accra, Ghana. That's where poor people, many of them children, pick through discarded electronics looking for precious metals and putting their own health in peril.

The real key, says Biello, is getting countries to agree to ban the export of e-waste. "There needs to be real penalties and real enforcement for e-waste. For example, the European Union directly bans the export of e-waste," he notes. "However, they don't ban the export of refurbished materials."

Biello says, "As a result, you'll find a lot of European e-waste in places like Agbogbloshie in Ghana. It was exported as refurbished material, but ends up as e-waste."

The United States hasn't even  gone as far as Europe. It hasn't signed the Basel Convention, the international treaty that bans the export of e-waste.  

So Biello says there are no rules in place in the US. "It's all voluntary. What Apple does, Apple does voluntarily — not under threat of punishment. And that's probably because the worst e-waste practices are not happening in, say, upstate New York or rural Missouri. They're happening in other parts of the world."

Consumers who want to do the right thing and recycle their electronics should recognize that many fraudulent recycling companies exist. "They say they are doing the right thing and, in fact, they don't do it," explains Bilelo. "And [they] then typically ship the e-waste off to places where children burn out the components of a cell phone to get the precious metals inside." 

So if you're going to get rid of your e-waste, here's Biello's advice:

  • The E-Stewards program is the way to go. "They guarantee that chain of custody, which is the key."
  • If you're replacing one Apple product to buy another, send it back to Apple through their take-back program. "Don't consign it to oblivion in a drawer."  
  • What about your town's or city's electronic recycling events?  Not so good. "It's a great idea, but the city or town has to get involved with a company or organization that does a very strict chain-of-custody type of work, so there's no lost e-waste along the way. You want to know ... where does it go?"

Tell us what you have tried to cut down on your e-waste or dispose of it properly, in the comments section.