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As shiny new electronics are plugged in all across the country this week, many old items are being thrown out.

Across the United States, shiny new electronics get plugged in every day. Thrown out are many of the old electronics. Many consumers choose to recycle their old electronic gadgets at electronic waste recycling centers, in an effort to prevent all of those plastics and chips from clogging up landfills and leaking waste into the ground.

The United States is the world’s biggest producer of electronic waste, generating around 2.5 million tons of it annually, unregulated by the federal government, which allows private companies to choose their own methods of recycling.

The Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that the United States exports a significant portion the e-waste generated. China is the largest importer of e-waste.

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4454155260_81e4f2d7be_zYou drop off that old electronic at an e-waste recycling center. Where does it go?

At a “Hazardous Waste Collection Day” residents dropped off computers, televisions and monitors for recycling by Goodwill Industries and Houston-based Waste Management Inc., America’s largest residential recycler. The goal was to give people in the area the opportunity to donate those end-of-life electronics.

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People tend to hold on to their electronics waste and keep them in their garages for a long time because they don’t know what to do with them,” a director of environmental business services at Goodwill Industries.

Most people do not know where their old items were going next and did not ask either. One resident stated she hoped they would take her old computer, replace the hard drive, and use it for education domestically.


Illegal e-waste traders worldwide take advantage of people not knowing where their e-waste winds up. In reality, much e-waste ends up abroad, in growing dumping grounds in China, India and West Africa. This waste can cause harm to local people’s health and the environment when discarded products are recycled by burning, breaking and dismantling.

ewaste-2The United States is one of three nations to have singed The Basel Convention of 1989: the other two are Haiti and Afghanistan. The Basel Convention of 1989 forbids the sending of hazardous waste from developed nations to developing ones. It is still legal to export e-waste from the United States. Any company can claim themselves as a responsible recycler; there are no mandatory certifications in the United States.

In 2013, consumers purchased 350.9 million PCs and 417 million cellular phones according to the research company Gartner Inc. In 2008, e-waste was at 42 million tons and in 2015 should reach 53 million tons according to a report by TechNavio. The United States has no idea how much e-waste is exported based on having no monitoring or tracking mechanisms.

1.5 million tons of e-waste is processed through Guiyu, China. It is believe by environmentalists that this is the largest e-waste processing center on Earth. According to the Basel Action Network, an American toxic trade watchdog organization, 75 percent of e-waste in Guiyu, China comes from North America. Workers in Guiyu, China are from outside provinces such as Guangxi, Hunan and Sichuan and earn the equivalent of about $7 to $10 per day, says an e-waste trader

Guiyu-ewasteBurning the materials to extract copper, using acid stripping to get the gold from circuit boards and plucking off the microchips from circuit boards by hands are the primitive methods used without protective gear or equipment. This lack of technology and improper recycling processes has caused serious impact on local environment and people’s health.

A study by Shantou University took blood samples from 165 children, ages 1 to 6, in Guiyu; 82 percent of them had blood/lead levels of more than 100, which is unsafe per international health experts. Guiyu also has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world, according to Shantou University.

The Chinese government in 2002 banned importing e-waste; however, e-waste finds the way in through Hong Kong where they have their own legal system.

Hong Kong will typically send e-waste into China by trucks or small boats according to environmental watchdog Greenpeace. According to Greenpeace and Basel Action Network about 80 percent of the containers going to Hong Kong are e-waste.

There are two domestic third-party certification-recycling entities in the U.S., Responsible Recycling Practices known as R2 and e-Steward. Neither group’s certification is mandatory.


Johnson, Tim (April 9, 2006). “E-waste dump of the world”. The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2007-03-09.
Yeung, Miranda (April 21, 2008). “There’s a dark side to the digital age”. South China Morning Post (Guangdong, China).
“Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia” (pdf). Basel Action Network. February 25, 2002.
Leung, Anna (March 4, 2008). “Heavy Metals Concentrations of Surface Dust from e-Waste Recycling”. Hong Kong.
Templeton, Nicola (Spring 2009). “Is Washington’s E-Cycle Program Adequate”. Seattle Journal For Social Justice.
“Waste not want not? Not in the world of computers”. Business Daily Update. September 27, 2006.
“Scientific Articles”. Basel Action Network. CBS News, 60 Minutes, “Following the trail of toxic e-waste,” Nov 6 2008
Chi-Chu, Tschang (May 24, 2005). “Greenpeace launches e-waste drive in China”. The Straits Times (Singapore). BBC News, “Unused e-waste discarded in China raises questions ,” Apr 20 2012 NPR News, “Following Electronic Waste from Recyclers to Dumps in China ,” Dec 28 2011 BBC News, “Electronic waste: EU adopts new WEEE law ,” Jan 19 2012
Terrence Henry – National Public Radio
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About Heather Joyce

As a mother of two fabulous human beings and a product of the summer of love; therefore, I tend to geek out on the hippy side of the tech world. Welcome to my view from Northern California.

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