Following the Digital Waste Trail…
In 2004, I dropped off a computer monitor, terminal and television at a warehouse that offered “free” e-waste recycling. The warehouse seemed straight out of War of the Worlds, filled to the gills with used electronics. Massive piles - disheveled, disorganized - flowed from the inside out onto the back driveway. I was young and naive and just looking for an easy way to dispose of my old stuff. It took me a few minutes navigating through piles to find an employee. Finally a gruff man appeared and told me to just dump my stuff anywhere outside. It’s free, I confirmed with him, and was relieved when he nodded. How easy! I thought… What I didn’t realize was that all of those electronics were likely exported (illegally) to Africa or Asia- with the prospect for resale. Not only did this put my personal information at risk – computer savvy individuals could easily recover all of my data – it also made my waste a problem for those who already have to live in a world of far too many problems. Yes, my computer may have been left to pollute a rural, impoverished village.
In violation of international law, special handlers ship e-waste in mislabeled containers or mixed in with legitimate goods. In a 2009 report, Interpol estimates that four million tons of e-waste are generated internationally on an annual basis. The need to dispose of e-waste has generated an industry worth more than $3 million annually. In 2005, inspections at 18 European seaports revealed that 47% of electronic waste prepared for export was illegal. Illegal shipping is thought to be even higher out of American ports, where weak regulations control e-waste export (the United States has not ratified the Basel Convention).
In interviews with reputable, pay-to-recycle operators, Interpol determined that it would be virtually impossible for free e-recyclers to dispose of waste profitably without exportation. This is because e-waste recycling is expensive. It is hazardous waste, containing up to 1,000 different chemicals.
Check out this video documenting the personal security and environmental hazards of e-waste.