2.37 million tons. This is the amount of electronic waste that was discarded in 2009 in the U.S. alone.
Currently, most discarded consumer electronics end up in landfills, or exported out of the U.S, often in violation of international laws. In 2009, approximately 25% of discarded electronics were collected for recycling, with most of the remainder disposed of in landfills, where the precious metals cannot be recovered. In many European countries, regulations have been introduced to prevent electronic waste being dumped in landfills due to its hazardous content.
While sitting in landfills, electronic products can leach toxic chemicals into the land. Meanwhile, incineration of e-waste releases heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury into the air and ashes. If the products contain PVC plastic, highly toxic dioxins and furans are also released. These toxins accumulate in the environment and are not likely to break down or degrade over time. Mercury in particular bioaccumulates in the food chain, especially in the fatty tissue of fish, which then winds up on peoples’ dinner plates.
Electronic waste can be recycled, but the majority of e-waste in the U.S. destined for recycling is exported to developing countries where the toxic chemicals in electronics may not be handled properly and could harm workers as well as the environment. In countries like China and Nigeria much electronics recycling is done by hand in scrap yards, often by children. For developed countries, electronics recycling takes place in recycling plants under controlled conditions. The EU, for example, does not recycle plastics from electronic waste because they want to avoid the risk of releasing furans and dioxins into the environment.
While there is little data on the amount of electronic waste in the U.S. being exported to developing countries, the EU has tracked much of their waste. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47% of waste for export was illegal. In the U.S., it’s estimated that 50-80% of the e-waste collected for recycling is being exported this way. This practice is technically legal in the U.S., since the U.S. has not ratified the Basel Convention, an international treaty to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between countries. Demand for e-waste began increasing in other countries, especially China, once they realized they could extract valuable substances, such as copper, iron, silicon, nickel and gold, during the recycling process. More information is necessary in the U.S. to know exactly where electronic waste is being sent and how much of it is being exported.