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Stop the Export of Electronic Waste to Developing Countries!

Updated on August 4, 2017

E-Waste Around the World

A Chinese child sits amongst a pile of wires and e-waste. Children can often be found dismantling e-waste containing many hazardous chemicals known to be potentially very damaging to children's health.
A Chinese child sits amongst a pile of wires and e-waste. Children can often be found dismantling e-waste containing many hazardous chemicals known to be potentially very damaging to children's health. | Source
E-waste from Europe arrives in Nigeria illegally to be sold as "second hand goods"
E-waste from Europe arrives in Nigeria illegally to be sold as "second hand goods" | Source
A pile of electronic waste on a roadside in Guiyu.
A pile of electronic waste on a roadside in Guiyu. | Source
Activists deliver electronic waste back to the offices of Hewlett Packard to demand the removal of toxic substances from HP products.
Activists deliver electronic waste back to the offices of Hewlett Packard to demand the removal of toxic substances from HP products. | Source

What is E-Waste?

Electronic waste is created when computers, televisions, printers, v.c.r.s, cell phones or other electronic devices are discarded because they are broken or have become obsolete. Ninety eight million cell-phones were retired in the United States in 2005; that number has grown to perhaps 130 million in recent years. In 2007, according to the EPA, Americans discarded 2.5 million tons of cell-phones, computers and printers as they upgraded to newer models. The United Nations Environmental Program estimates the global production of electronic waste to be as much as 50 million tons per year worldwide. So where does all this e-waste end up?

Because electronic waste contains toxic materials, including heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium, as well as hazardous chemicals such as polyvinylchloride and brominated flame retardants; they are not meant to be disposed of in a typical landfill. While some e-waste still does, much of it gets shipped overseas to be disassembled in countries like China, India, Ghana and Pakistan which offer a cheap labor force and lax environmental standards.

Why do these countries accept electronic waste? Electronic components typically contain a greater percent of usable metal by weight as compared with ores which are mined from the ground. One cell-phone can contain five to ten times more gold than does gold ore. Used in wiring and circuit boards, electronics can contain ten to 50 times more copper than does copper ore. As a result, it is less expensive to extract these metals from discarded electronics than it is to mine new sources, provided there is an available and inexpensive workforce willing to handle these materials unprotected.

Huge shipping containers of electronic waste arrive in cities like Hong Kong, China and Accra, Ghana, filled with the technological cast-offs of wealthier developed countries like the US, Canada, Australia and members of the EU. In Hong Kong, one container of monitors and televisions can be sold for $5,000 and yield a profit of $4000 in the Chinese market. The containers are then transported to various "recycling" centers, where poor villagers, many of them women and children, break them down by hand for just a few dollars per day, using simple hand tools and no protective gear. The waste is often burned or stripped in acid to access the metals inside, releasing toxic smoke and hazardous chemicals into the air. The resulting ash and debris are left on the ground, where they leach chemicals into the soil, or are tossed into nearby rivers and streams where they pollute the water supply. In Guiyu, the water supply has become so polluted that drinking water is now brought in by truck. Many of these chemicals remain in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years, eventually making their way up the food chain from plants, to animals, and eventually humans, increasing in concentration as they are passed along.

E-Waste in Ghana Source: Greenpeace (

Toxics in Electronics

The toxic materials contained in the casings, wiring, displays and circuit boards of electronics can have devastating effects on the environment and human health. Older style cathode ray televisions and computer monitors contain about five pounds of lead in their glass screens. Lead is also used as a solder in circuit boards and is a dangerous neurotoxin, that, when exposed to humans, can cause damage to the blood, nervous and reproductive systems in adults, and intellectual impairment in children. In Guiyu, China, a major e-waste recycling site, children were found to have lead in their bloodstreams at twice the normal level. While newer flat screen models do not contain lead; they do contain mercury, another dangerous neuro-toxin. Children and pregnant women are at particular risk to both. Polyvinylchloride (PVC) is a chlorinated plastic used in wiring for insulation and as a component in electronic casings. PVC is toxic to humans in low levels and also persists in the environment. Certain brominated flame retardants used in plastic casings and circuit boards also persist in the environment, and, in humans, disrupt the estrogen and thyroid hormone systems. Fetal exposure to these chemicals has been linked to behavioral problems. Studies show that people living or working near electronic waste sites have elevated levels of these chemicals in their bodies, placing them at higher risk for cancer and other diseases.

Buy it, Use it, Break it, Junk it, it's Toxic Get an idea of the components that make up our everyday appliances. Source: Greenpeace (

How Can This Be Legal?

While a host of national and international laws are in place which are meant to protect humans and the environment from the exploitation and degradation caused by the e-waste trade, many are poorly enforced, and traders work by maneuvering around loopholes in the laws. The Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements on Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, negotiated by the United Nations beginning in 1988, and its subsequent 1998 amendment, known as the Basel Ban, are meant to protect the environment and human health from the dangers associated with the transport of hazardous waste across international borders. Because the ban has not been ratified by the necessary three fourth's majority, it has not officially become law, and as a result, poor countries like China, India, Pakistan and Ghana are not fully protected from the influx of these materials.To this day, the United States, a signatory of the Basel Convention, has yet to ratify the Basel Ban or the convention itself.Electronic waste continues to flow from the US to developing countries desoite the efforts of the convention. In Ghana, and other nations, e-waste continues to pour in under the disguise of "second hand goods." Though China has passed its own laws regarding the import of electronic waste, they are often ignored and not adequately enforced.

Organizations like the Basel Action Network and The Electronics Take Back Coalition are working to improve US and international laws regarding electronic waste. The Basel Action Network Urges the passage of US House Bill 6252 which would ban the export of hazardous wastes from the US to developing countries. The Electronics Take Back Coalition supports legislation which would require electronics manufacturers to be repaired, refurbished, or recycled properly.

What You Can Do

-The first and easiest step is to be mindful about your own e-waste. How often do you trade in your cellphone? Every year? Every two? While the latest models can be fun and exciting, your current phone probably still has some life lest in it. Consider hanging onto it for another year or two. Whenever possible, replace broken parts rather than the entire phone. While many carriers offer a new phone at a good deal, particularly when it's time to renew your contract, consider the environmental cost before you upgrade. If your computer ceases to work or becomes slow or outdated, try to have it repaired, cleaned out, or updated with new software. While you'll have to wait a little longer for the sleek new design, remember, it's worth it. The same goes for your television. If you're thinking about replacing your older cathode ray tv with a new flat screen model, try holding out a little longer. You've waited this long, right?

- When it is finally time to retire your old electronics, find a responsible recycler. While many US electronics "recycling" companies do ship their e-waste overseas, there are several companies and organizations that recycle e-waste responsibly. Be careful, though, many companies which claim not to export their waste actually sell it to companies that do. If they can't tell you for sure, then it's better to find one who can. Look for recyclers with the "e-stewards" certification or check with your local municipality. Your town or local government should be able to provide you with information on the fate of your trash.Check out the links below to locate responsible recyclers in your area, or one you can ship to.

- Purchasing new electronics? Due to mounting pressure from consumers and organizations like Greenpeace and The Electronics Take Back Coalition, many companies are phasing out certain hazardous chemicals and "greening" their electronics. Both Nokia and Sony Ericcson have removed PVC's and brominated flame retardants from their products. The more consumers move toward purchasing greener electronics, the more companies will respond. For more information, check out Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics at the link below.

- Take Action! Contact your representatives and urge passage of tougher recycling laws. California and Maine have already implemented their own take-back laws, and California has placed restrictions on the types and levels of hazardous chemicals in products that can be sold. Visit the websites for Greenpeace, The Basel Action Network, and The Electronics Take Back Coalition at the links below to find out more on how to help.


Photo and video are used with permission from Greenpeace International (

                                                              Works Cited:

(1) The Basel Convention Website  United Nations Environmental Programme, web. 8 Nov 2010

(2) The Greenpeace International Website Greenpeace International, web. 8 Nov 2010

(3) The US Environmental Protection Agency Website. Chapter V-Basel Convention. The US Environmental Protection Agency, August 28 2008. Web. 8 Nov 2010

(4) The Electronics Takeback Coalition Website. The Electronics Takeback Coalition, web 8 Nov 2010

(5) The Basel Action Network Website. The Basel Action Network, web 8 Nov 2010

(6) Jozefowicz, Chris. "Waste woes: our old electronic gadgets often become toxic trash spread around the world." Current Health 2, a Weekly Reader publication Jan. 2010: 24+. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.

(7) "Electronics Waste." Environmental Science: In Context. Ed. Brenda Wilmoth Lerner and K. Lee Lerner. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2009. 252-253. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.

(8) Shell, Ellen Ruppell. "Electronic Waste Hurts the Environment." The Environment. Ed. Laura K. Egendorf. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2009. Opposing Viewpoints. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.

(9) Royte, Elizabeth. GarbageLand: The Secret Trail of Trash. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Paperback.


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