Trashy Times: Where Do Recycled Gadgets Really Go?

e-waste dumps

Do you know what really happens to your electronics after you’re done with them? If you send them to a recycling facility, there’s a good chance that they’ll actually end up in countries like China, India or Ghana, where local workers risk their health to scavenge valuable materials from the discarded objects. The harmful waste resulting from these recycling centers often ends up in the local air and water stream, endangering the health of everyone in the vicinity.

melting boards in guiyu

salvaging electronics guiyu

It was only in 2001 that a light was first shone on these dangerous practices. Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network traced the path of “recycled” electronic waste – laptops, PCs, monitors, cell phones and TVs, for example – from North America to China, where workers make $6-$8 a day handling toxic materials with no protective clothing or masks. His video footage caught the attention of environmentalists around the world, but despite the outrage the practice still isn’t exactly illegal.

electronic waste dumps guiyu

recycling electronics guiyu

U.S. regulations concerning e-waste are murky at best, with no clear federal guidelines on how the e-waste should be handled. The lack of clear regulations leaves it up to individual companies to decide how to deal with their old electronics. Sadly, that means that many of them are shipped overseas where people, even young children, expose themselves to toxic substances to get at the small scraps of precious metals inside.

e waste dump guiyu china

Recently, a research group from the University of British Columbia visited e-waste sites in Ghana and Guiyu, China. Their findings were put together into the short documentary “Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground” which aired on PBS (you can watch it online here). The conditions at the e-waste dumps were deplorable. Young boys burned plastic pieces to uncover the metal inside, while usable electronic parts were sold at open-air markets. Among the parts available for purchase were hard drives with retrievable personal information still intact.

recycling used electronics

While it is certainly up to the consumer to erase their personal data from hard drives before disposing of it, it’s easy to see why they believe that their information will not be compromised. Many recyclers, such as those in the PBS video, promise that the electronics will be completely melted down and only the precious metal components salvaged. However, as the researchers found, an alarming number of those recyclers pack the electronics into shipping containers and send them off to developing countries because it’s simply cheaper and easier for them.

mountains of recycled laptops guiyu

(images via: Artsyspot)

There are some reputable e-waste recyclers out there that have invested the time and money into developing a much more sustainable recycling program. Unfortunately, because there are so few government regulations in the industry, it’s up to the individual consumer to research the company they entrust their old electronics to.