I Got the Post-Holiday, Trash-Collected, Dump-Protected, Obsolete Electronics Blues

New electronic gadgets top the holiday shopping lists of millions of Americans every year. And this means that every year, more and more obsolete and highly toxic electronic waste piles up in our basements, garages, closets, and (worst of all) town dumps.

Here at the Center for Environmental Health, we just invited our staff to bring in their outdated electronics.  Together our sixteen interns and staff members filled a Prius-sized bin with obsolete computers, printers, TVs, cellphones, monitors, batteries, chargers, cables, home phones, answering machines, etc.  The recycler then took the bin to a facility where trained workers set some items aside to be refurbished, and they carefully dismantled the rest to separate the exceptionally hazardous chemicals — mercury, lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, arsenic, and hundreds more –- that live inside these gadgets.  To protect people and the environment, it’s absolutely critical that these materials be handled with extreme care.  That’s why we took pains to use a certified e-Steward recycler committed to the best practices in electronics recycling (more on e-Stewards below).

The good news is that most people now realize that once their electronics are no longer functional, the best thing they can do with them and their highly toxic innards is to recycle them.  The bad news is that it’s not always easy to know when e-waste recyclers are truly handling materials in the most responsible way.  We know that our recycler has a strong reputation, and we visited their facility and met with the company’s executives to ensure that they were truly protecting their workers and the environment.

But all electronics recyclers are not created equal. Most businesses that call themselves recyclers do not actually break the equipment down into reusable components.  Many are brokers who just collect the equipment and sell it off to the highest bidder without any idea or concern about where that toxic e-waste ends up.

“60 Minutes” recently did an excellent piece on this shady business.

But maybe you’ve heard from one of the major electronics retailers and manufacturers who now offer free “take-back” programs.  They say they have “no export policies.” Surely, they must be doing the right thing, right?

I wish I could tell you.  These retailers and manufacturers have refused to disclose their actual e-waste disposal efforts.  Neither have they allowed third-party auditors to verify that they are living up to their promises. Without these steps, you and I will never know where their e-waste actually ends up.  But we do know this:  e-waste brokers typically bundle electronics and send them overseas, to China, India, Pakistan and throughout Africa, where unprotected workers disassemble them and are exposed to the toxics within.  This practice has created some of the most horrifically polluted sites on the planet.  (Again, spend twelve minutes and forty seconds watching the 60 minutes piece.)

Many recyclers and take-back programs will tell you that they do not send your dead monitor and your obsolete analog CRT television to developing countries. But either directly or indirectly, many do just that.

So how can you keep your obsolete, ten-pound laptop’s lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxic materials out of the Lianjiang River in Guiyu (an actual place)?  The very best way is to use an e-Steward™ — an electronics recycler who has agreed to uphold the highest environmental, social and health standards, including:

  • No export of hazardous electronics to developing countries
  • No use of prison labor
  • No landfill or incineration

Beginning in March 2010, e-Stewards becomes a third-party, independently audited certification program, representing the highest standards in the industry.

You can look for an e-Steward recycler in your area with this website: The current list of e-Stewards is small and may not be available yet in your immediate community, but by holding on to your e-waste until you can get it to an e-Steward, you can help push the marketplace to make these prudent, responsible practices the rule and not the exception.

And what if your local recyclers aren’t e-Stewards?  Tell them that you and your friends and family look forward to giving them your growing pile of e-waste – as soon as they become certified e-Stewards.

Recycling is big business.  Let’s do our part and support only those recyclers who are committed to the highest environmental and health standards.