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Collaborative on Health and
the Environment   
May 2016

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Waste More, Want More: The Adage of the Age of Electronics
NOTE: While CHE primarily highlights emerging environmental health science, we also occasionally bring attention to how this new research is being applied (or not) to decision-making in the marketplace and regulatory policies. 
Every day new mountains are being born - not because of shifting plate tectonics but due to electronic waste, the fastest growing source of waste in the world. This is not news to most people, but what may be surprising is that many of the old computers and phones you thought you were being responsibly recycled are actually being shipped thousands of miles overseas. This is according Basel Action Network, which partnered with MIT to put geo-tracking devices in old electronics to see where they actually ended up. In their investigation, reported Monday, it was found that almost a third of old electronics taken in by even a couple of the most reputable electronic recycling companies in the US went to other countries - despite these companies stating explicitly that they did not allow this practice.

Pile of ewaste by Snarklemotion

Why is this a problem? Because we know that in many developing countries, the workers who take apart these electronics are often not protected from chronic exposure to toxic chemicals (such as arsenic, PVC, lead and mercury) in the products themselves, as well as to by-products (such as dioxin) from burning these materials. These chemicals are associated with an array of ailments, including neurological damage, certain cancers, and reproductive health problems. More concerning is that some of these workers are children, who are more vulnerable to these exposures and whose health may be impacted for their lifetimes. In addition, the diesel and other nonrenewable energy sources used to transport this waste are highly polluting and contribute to climate change. 

Some nascent steps are being taken upstream to help rectify this situation. Apple, Inc., for example, issued a report last month stating the company will no longer use the following six toxic chemicals or chemical classes in their products: arsenic, beryllium, brominated flame retardants, lead, mercury and PVC/phthalates. While this is admirable (and the result of concerted market campaigns over the years), it is not exactly clear whether the chemical substitutes they have chosen are necessarily safer.

Ultimately it's clear that we cannot buy, or even recycle, our way out of these problems.  The current mounds of e-waste are full of non-biodegradable materials. E-waste is also part of the huge gyres of garbage circulating in our oceans and being consumed by fish that we then consume.
What we need are incentives to encourage a societal shift to a "waste not, want not" mentality. But the US, the largest producer of e-waste in the world, is generally driving in the opposite direction and prompting less-developed countries to consume emerging technology at ever-growing rates without any forethought being given to health-friendly disposal practices. There are a few things we can do, however. We can collectively demand that green chemistry be the basis for developing new electronic products. We can demands companies be accountable for the health and safety of their products throughout their life cycles, including the health and safety of those who make, use and dismantle them. And perhaps most important, we can model for our children and theirs that more is often not better - and in fact, less is often more.

Elise Miller, MEd

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