E-waste: Our Choice between Polluting and Creating American Recycling Jobs

The United Nations Reports e-waste processing is one of the worst forms of child labor

E-waste: Our Choice between Polluting and Creating American Recycling Jobs

Toxics e-waste documentation (China : 2005)

When a class of students is asked if they have owned more than one cell phone during their lifetime, it is no surprise to see every person raise a hand. Further questioning reveals that the majority of students has also owned more than two, some owning as many as six cell phones in total. The pattern is similar when students are asked about laptops; most students have owned between two and three in their lifetime. This classroom illustrates how the short life-span of modern electronics forces consumers to buy new products many times throughout their lives, resulting in the accumulation of unused cell phones, computers, televisions, appliances, and other electronics. The short lifespan of consumer technology is amajor reason why American consumers, businesses, and government agencies generate over 3 million tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, every year. Currently, the majority of this e-waste is shipped to developing countries so that precious and toxic metals alike can be extracted from the recycled products. This method of shipping e-waste overseas not only exploits cheap labor in developing countries, but also creates a harmful work environment for those involved. Instead of shipping e-waste elsewhere, the United States could create jobs and promote economic growth by supporting e-waste recycling facilities within the nation’s borders.

In 2011, over 2.5 million metric tons of e-waste (roughly equivalent to 2.5 million cars) was dumped in developing countries where unprotected workers endanger their health, families, and the global environment by using hazardous and outdated methods to retrieve metals, wires, and other components from the recycled electronics[1]. One of these dumping sites is the Agbogbloshie neighborhood in Accra, Ghana. This is one of the largest e-waste dump sites in Africa and is ranked alongside Chernobyl among the world’s ten most polluted places. Workers at the site, primarily children, burn cables and devices to recover copper, releasing lead and heavy metals into the environment [2]. In developing countries, these common e-waste recycling practices result in higher rates ofmiscarriages, childhood cancers, permanent organ damage, and lead poisoning. These practices also pollute theoceans, soil, air, and contaminate the communities’ drinking water [3, 4]. The majority of the world’s e-waste is shipped to developing countries like Africa so that wealthier, developed countries can avoid the economic and environmental cost associated with recycling these materials in their nation. However, increasing the number of certified e-waste recycling businesses in developed countries has many benefits.

Since the United States is the second largest producer of e-waste in the world, using recycling facilities in the U.S. instead of dumping e-waste overseas could encourage the growth of the U.S. e-waste recycling industry, which currently represents many small businesses and blue collar jobs [5]. It would also reduce the amount of e-waste sent to developing countries where many adults and children are exposed to hazardous working conditions. There are several third party certification programs, such as e-Stewards and R2 that will certify e-waste recycling businesses that adhere to the guidelines for recovering precious metals and disposing of toxic materials while dismantling and recycling electronics [6,7].Since only a small proportion of e-waste recycling companies are currently certified, this could be an area for job creation and economic growth [6]. Information from existing U.S. e-waste recyclers estimates that this industry could create over 42,000 American jobs and an annual payroll of over $1 billion [8]. The European Union has already accelerated the growth of its own e-waste recycling industry with Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment legislation. Since this legislation was passed, e-waste recycling in Europe generated $1.3 billion in 2012 and is estimated to generate $1.79 billion by 2020 [9]. Similar legislative action in the U.S. could bring jobs to communities with high unemployment rates and reduce the amount of e-waste transported to developing countries.

The U.S. has signed but not ratified the Basel Convention, which addresses the movement of e-waste from developed to undeveloped countries. The Basel Convention restricts movements of hazardous waste, created a regulatory system for movements of hazardous waste between countries, and aims to reduce the generation of hazardous waste and to promote environmentally sound management of wastes. Very few countries have not signed and ratified the Basel Convention since it was first adopted in 1989. The United States is the only developed country that has not ratified the convention alongside countries such as South Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Myanmar [10]. Instead, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (H.R. 2791) was first introduced to the House of Representatives in 2011. In 2013 it was reintroduced to the House of Representativesby Rep. Gene Green of Texas and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors. The bill strongly discourages the export of e-waste to the developing world and helps ensure that e-waste in the U.S. is disposed of safely by enforcing waste standards in an areas that are currently unregulated. The senate counterpart (S.2090) was recently reintroduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. While this is a step in the right direction for the U.S., more awareness and action is necessary for significant changes to be made.

Relying on government intervention to institute change is not sufficient on its own.

Students also have a voice as electronic consumers, electronic disposers, and political constituents. This generation needs convenient, affordable, and certified locations where they can properly dispose of their electronic waste and knowit will not be sent overseas. It is important to spread awareness of this issue and research where the locations you recycle to determine whether or not they ship their e-waste overseas. Find your Representatives at house.gov and your Senators at senate.gov. Call their offices or send their office an email and ask them to co-sponsor H.R. 2791 in the house or S. 2090 in the senate respectively. The more calls and emails they get, the higher priority the issue becomes in their office. Consumers can also track their e-waste at www.mytracktech.com and see if their local recycling facilities are R2 or e-Stewards certified online.


Elizabeth Schiavoni recently graduated as a Biology of Global Health major at Georgetown University (Class of 2014). Follow The Triple Helix online on Twitter and like us on Facebook.


Works Cited

[1] Electronics Take Back Coalition. (2013). Facts and Figures on E-Waste and Recylcing. SanFrancisco, CA. e-pub.

[2] Biello, David. (2013). E-Waste Dump among Top 10 Most Polluted Sites. Scientific American. 310(1): e-pub.

[3] Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland. (2013) The World’s Worst 2013: The Top Ten Toxic Threats: Cleanup, Progress, and Ongoing Challenges. NY, NY and Zurich, Switzerland: Bernhardt, Angela and Gysi, Nathalie.

[4] Pinto, Violet. (2008). E-waste hazard: The impending challenge. Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 12(2): 65-70.

[5] Lewis, Tanya. (2013). World’s E-Waste to Grow 33% by 2017, Says Global Report.  livescience. e-pub.

[6] Debaise, Colleen. (2014). Finding Rewards, Financial and Spiritual, in E-Waste. New YorkTimes. e-pub.

[7] Martin, John. (2011). The Federal Government Highlights Economic Benefits of Electronics Recycling; Top Officials Tour Electronic Waste Recycler. yosemite.epa.gov. e-pub.

[8] Coalition for American Electronics Recylcing. (2013). Jobs Through Electronics Recylcing: Membership Survey and Jobs Study of the Potential of the U.S. Electronics Recycling Industry. Windsor, VT.

[9] Chrusciak, Monika. (2013). European Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment Recycling Market. Frost and Sullivan. M91F-01.

[10] Basel Convention. (2011). Overview. www.basel.int. e-pub.


Image: “Guiyu Child Wires.” commons.wikimedia.orgLast modified March 25, 2014. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guiyu-child-wires.jpg.