Why Environmental Groups Are Wrong about E-waste

Why Environmental Groups Are Wrong about E-waste

Unlike other commonly recycled products, such as cans and paper, the processes for recycling electronics are monstrously time-consuming, labour-intensive and wasteful.

Environmental groups like the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, among others, have been in the news lately, chiding gadget makers in general and Apple in particular for bad environmental policies. They're bringing attention to the growing mountains of toxic PCs, mobile phones, iPods and other electronics in landfills and pushing governments for "green" regulation.

This problem is real, and I applaud these and dozens of other organizations that are working to make a difference. But their prescriptions for consumer action - what they want you and me to do about e-waste - is actually bad for the environment. I'll tell you why in a minute. I'll also outline a superior alternative to the recycling they are demanding. But first, let's review the problem.

The trouble with e-trash

Consumer Reports says Americans threw away about 3 million tons of electronics in 2003. Some 700 million mobile phones have already been thrown away worldwide, with 130 million disposed of in 2005 alone.

Worse, this stuff is toxic. Old-school CRT monitors and TVs average about 2.7 kilograms of poisonous lead, which is the leading source of this toxic substance in landfills. Most PCs and electronic gadgets contain circuit boards packed with toxic metals like chromium, zinc and nickel. Even the plastics contain toxic flame-retardant chemicals.

A recent report by researchers at the University of California at Irvine analyzed the chemical brew that leaches out of mobile phones in a landfill and found toxic lead, copper, nickel, antimony and zinc all creating a serious hazard. Consumer Reports says that only 10 percent of discarded PCs are recycled "responsibly".

About 80 percent of discarded electronics is currently sent to a handful of developing countries like China, India and Kenya, where people (including small children) dismantle the gadgets for parts and metals. The work is dangerous and low-paying, and greatly increases life-threatening water and soil pollution in those countries and air pollution globally. Forthcoming laws in most industrialized countries will effectively ban this practice. We're going to have to deal with our own toxic e-waste problem in the future, and we won't be able to just export the problem.

But what should we do about it?

The trouble with environmental groups

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other organizations push recycling hard. They want you to participate either in the "take-back" programs offered by Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and others, or find a recycler to take your e-junk.

However, this overemphasis on recycling fails to take advantage of the special nature of electronic equipment. Gadgets are completely different from other products that we recycle. Worse, pushing recycling is actually hurting the environment, and I call on all these groups to rethink their obsession with recycling, at least in this particular matter.

Here are five reasons why recycling electronic gear is bad for the environment:

  • Recycling pollutes. Unlike other commonly recycled products, such as cans and paper, the processes for recycling electronics are monstrously time-consuming, labour-intensive and wasteful. Recycling gadgets involves refurbishing (testing, fixing and reusing), demanufacturing (stripping for parts) or extracting raw materials (such as metals). Every single device must be carefully and individually handled in these processes, which nearly always results in incomplete recycling anyway. It requires heated buildings with lights burning, power tools, trucking - all kinds of processes that are bad for the environment.

  • Recycling doesn't cut gadget production. It feels good to drop old junk off at the local recycling centre, but doing that actually provides an incentive for manufacturers to keep cranking out millions of new gadgets, which will all have to be dealt with eventually. Environmental groups should be pushing consumers to demand that manufacturers make fewer devices.

  • Recycling demands virtue and so will fail. Recycling requires individual sacrifice for the collective good. When is the last time that worked? People cut petrol use and buy hybrid cars because petrol is too expensive, not because they want to help the earth (with exceptions). If environmental groups are waiting for everyone to become a good citizen, they're going to wait a long time. They should be educating consumers on how to make choices that both benefit the consumers personally and help the environment.

  • Recycling doesn't improve products. One of the biggest contributors to e-waste is lousy products, which people either get tired of or get rid of because they're too hard or unpleasant to use. Excellent products are more desirable to keep around and last longer.

  • Recycling feeds one of the biggest environmental problems: lazy storage. Environmental groups push recycling electronics over throwing them away. But most buyers do neither. I think recycling contributes to this. People feel weird throwing a working mobile phone in the trash and know they should recycle. But people are busy and they procrastinate. There's no urgency; something can be recycled now, or 10 years from now. What's the difference? Environmental groups should be pushing for action to get these devices out of the garage and into the hands of people who can use them as soon as possible, before they're obsolete.

Here's the solution

It's time for environmental groups to stop pushing the feel-good panacea of recycling and start advocating a practice I call "re-upgrading". Re-upgrading (recycling through upgrading), involves selling your gadget when it's still practically new and using the money to upgrade to a better gadget (buying used if possible).

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