Ethics and Electronic Waste, Part 1

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Want to play a game, and take little a trip down memory lane? Grab a piece of paper, or start a running tally in your head: we’re going to go through all the electronic devices you’ve owned in your lifetime.  Ready? Here goes:

Take a moment and think all the way back to the first cell phone you ever had –perhaps chuckle as you recall how the clunky device compares to the sleek, multitasking gadget you have now– and go through all the cellular phones you’ve had since then. Count them up — how many have there been in total?  Is it 3? 5? 7?  More? Take note.


Now, do the same thing for any music playing device, starting way back at the beginning. Did you once have a cd player, maybe even a tape player?  And then at some point at the turn of the millenium, did you transition over to using the ill-fated mini-disc player, or more likely, did you join the revolution that was the iPod? And as the years went on, did you find yourself having to upgrade, because, well, the new iPods were smaller and sleeker, and then the even newer iPods came with video screens, and then the even newer ones came with touch screens?  And, oh yea, along the way, how many stereos, speakers, and earphones would you say you’ve gone through in tandem? From your first cd or tape player all the way to now, how many electronic bits and pieces have you used to play the songs you love?

ipod-nano-4gWhat about televisions — and of course, the video players, gaming systems, and satellite boxes that go along with them– how many of those have you had?  Ever had to replace a TV because you were moving, and it was too heavy to bring along? Or maybe you just wanted to upgrade it to say, a new HD screen, or a higher quality Blu-ray video system, because the old version just wouldn’t do?  And what about that laptop or computer you are reading this blog post on right now?  It’s unlikely it’s the first computer you’ve ever owned or used, that is, unless you’re staring at an early 1990s Dell or Macintosh and stubbornly using dial-up internet ; so how many computers have you had before the one you are on right now?  And the one you are on now, do you like it?  How long before you upgrade to a newer one, on to bigger (or smaller) and better things, never to look back at the now defunct product you no longer have use for?


OK – game over. Time to tally it up–all the old cell phones, iPods, TVs, video systems, computers – and place them in a line up in your head.  Now, go ahead and ask yourself: where are all of those items now?

Though some of these items may be gathering dust in a drawer or a box in your garage, unless you’re part of the 20% of people who recycle their electronic waste properly, it’s more than likely that all those electronics that you once owned and loved but cast aside are in a toxic dump, somewhere overseas, leaching toxic chemicals into the ground, air, and water, and contributing to a global epidemic of improperly disposed electronic waste.

In the United States alone, we throw away over 350,00 cell phones and 130,000 computers a day

Here are the facts: There are over 20-50 million tons of e-waste generated worldwide each year, constituted by cell phones, computers, music devices and also other electronic devices like microwaves and refridgerators. In the United States alone, we throw away over 350,00 cell phones and 130,000 computers a day; that’s over 100 million cell phones per year.  And though some of this waste languishes in landfills stateside, over 60% of this waste is shipped to places like China and Africa, where it is dealt with in facilities that lack the money, machinery, and ability to properly dispose of them.  As a result, these items leak toxic chemicals, including chemicals like mercury, lead, and cadmium, into the environment and bodies to which they are exposed.




Why is it a moral issue – and why should you care?  Improperly disposed e-waste is a global ethical problem of which each individual who uses electronics is a stakeholder.  A look into the town of Guiya, China, where there are “miles and miles of nothing but old electronics,”  provides insight into the issue.  Guiya is an area which houses a major electronic recycling facility, wherein residents – including children– are employed to break down old cell phones, computers, and other electronics into their component parts often by burning them or placing them in nitric hydrochloric acids to remove their precious metals.  But in the process, the destabilized chemicals are released and wreak havoc on those who are exposed. Guiyu is reported as having the highest number of cancer causing toxins in the world; the river which runs through it contains up to 2,400 times the World Health Organization’s acceptable threshold for lead.

Guiya River has over 2,400 times the WHO's limit for Lead

Guiya River has over 2,400 times the WHO's limit for Lead

The residents face high rates of risk of miscarriage, respiratory problems and lead poisoning.  And other health effects remain unknown. Oladele Ogunseitan, an environmental health scientist at University of California Irvine interviewed by Jon Mooallem for the New York Times Magazine reports, “In a phone that you can hold in the palm of your hand, you now have more than 200 chemical compounds,” “To try to separate them out and study what health effects may be associated with burning it or sinking it in water — that’s a lifetime of work for a toxicologist.”


This catastrophe is not just taking place overseas. Mooallem writes, “In a study published last year, 34 recent-model cellphones were put through a standard E.P.A. test, simulating conditions inside a landfill. All of them leached hazardous amounts of lead — on average, more than 17 times the federal threshold for what constitutes hazardous waste. Under a stricter state of California test, they also leached four other metals above hazardous levels.”).  Even landfills, which are technically supposed to be more contained and safe, are bastions of risk.

e_waste_03In addition to these significant environmental and health effects, e-waste is just what it sounds like—a waste—of both money, and of resources. Many electronics that are thrown away contain precious minerals like gold and platinum that can be “mined” and then reused or reconstituted into products – but only if they are properly managed after disposal. Companies such as Umicore are in the business of extracting the precious metals in a process known as “aboveground mining.”  And how’s this for a factoid?  In 2005, The United States Geological Survey estimated that in the more than half a billion old phones stored away in people’s drawers, there was more than $300 million worth of gold, palladium, silver, copper, and platinum contained in the precious metals in those cell phones.

Kendra Postell writes about the global issue of e-waste — and what our role is in pursuing it as a moral issue — in her guest post below.  Read it and consider the questions she asks: what is our ethical responsibility to the environment when it comes to our use of technological devices?  How can we best address the problem of e-waste, as we continue to use and develop more and more electronic devices into the future?

KendraKendra Postell is a Freshman at Santa Clara University pursuing a degree in Philosophy with an emphasis in Pre-Law. She chose to write about this topic because she is interested in the relationship between developed and developing nations and thinks it important to examine the global ramifications of everyday actions.

Technology: A Mixed Bag

Our generation and the past few decades have been defined by an explosion of invention and use of technology. One-hundred years ago being able to talk to someone on the other side of the planet instantly was an impossible feat and today people in some of the most remote parts of the world are communicating with each other wirelessly on cellular or satellite phones. Technology has done many good things for humanity. With the help of modern communication technologies we have created a society in which we can share knowledge and resources with people around the world. With advancements in electrical and civil engineering we have seen lifespan and quality of life for many drastically increase over the past several decades.


Despite all of its usefulness, our modern obsession with technology comes with some negative side effects. A large amount of capital is needed to continually update as new inventions arise, but many poor countries, which are most in need of this development, do not have the financial means to support it. These countries are left starving, with neither electricity nor clan water, and most of their citizens living in staggering poverty. While wealthy countries continue to update, reinvent and redesign these countries fall further and further behind. Often, because of this pattern of several countries advancing far beyond the means of others, the success of powerful countries is achieved at the expense of the poor. This cycle is exemplified especially in our methods of e-waste disposal.

Since preschool our generation has been taught that recycling is good for the environment. Programs such as Earth911 provide recycling education resources to students and teachers alike. Though many of our plastic bottles still make it to landfills and, according to Time Magazine’s Bryan Walsh in his article “E-Waste Not” only 20% of Americans properly dispose of their electronic waste, at least we know we have failed when we toss our soda can in the trash or that outdated calculator in the dumpster. We are taught that taking our old electronics to a proper facility is the more honorable alternative and we imagine those electronics end up in a plant similar to the one in my hometown, Roseville, California, described in the New York Times article, ‘Panning E-Waste for Gold’. In recent years, however, we have found that electronic recycling has its dark side.

c99a16ed-eda3-47ef-8863-59670dd45d1f7Because the United States has strict regulations on dealing with pollutants and toxic waste and a high minimum wage “many electronics recyclers ship American e-waste abroad, where it is stripped and burned with little concern for environmental or human health,” notes Walsh. Breaking down and recycling electronics is an expensive undertaking in America, so many companies ship the electronics overseas where laborers are willing to do the dirty work for very little pay. Guiyu, China is one of the most noted recycling cites and because of the country’s poor waste management regulations this city’s people suffer many health complications including increased rates of miscarriage (six times greater according to 60 Minutes) and astonishing levels of lead in children’s bodies, a substance known to cause brain damage and a battery of other severe health complications.

We have a situation of “21st century toxics being managed in a 17th century environment” says Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview with 60 Minutes. Circuit boards are dunked in crude acid to extract gold and plastics are burned away leaving behind other valuable metals, not to mention a flood of some of the most toxic fumes known to man.

See a video detailing the health hazards of e-waste in India:

Why do these people expose themselves to such horrible health hazards? Many do not even know of the hazardous effects, as mentioned in the above video, but for those who do it is all a matter of capital. One can afford to feed themselves and their family on the salaries (extremely meager by our standards) these recycling plants provide. “It’s…a choice between poverty and poison” explains, Jim Puckett, also a 60 Minutes interviewee, “and we should never make them make that choice.” Unfortunately, we make them make this choice every day, and with electronics being the fastest growing form of waste in America, the choice has become increasingly financially appealing; the people of Guiyu make a small salary by harvesting and selling metals, and American recycling businesses can simply ship off our worn electronics rather than go through the expensive process of breaking them down domestically.

See the 60 Minutes video below which further explains this smuggling process and the plight of Guiyu, China:
Watch CBS News Videos Online

The Politics Of ‘Going Green’

One of the most appalling aspects of this process is that some American recyclers who participate in selling these electronics to poor countries claim to break them down safely and ethically in the United States. They lie and get all of the advantages of having an ethical, positive image while still reaping the financial rewards of outsourcing the dirty work. As Rajni Kothari says in his essay about development, ‘Environment, Technology, and Ethics,’ “‘Sustainability’ has been adopted as rhetoric, not as an ethical principle which restructures our relationship with the Earth and its creatures in the realm of knowledge and in arenas of action” (Kothari, 431). The idea of ‘going green’ or being ‘eco-friendly’ is really just an add campaign, a way to make buyers feel safe and good about their purchase, while still causing the same environmental ills as before the green movement.

If recycling companies lie to their customers and promise to break down electronics in the U.S. when in reality they ship them to China, how is one supposed to dispose their old cell phones, laptops and televisions? It seems like we are stuck choosing between tossing our old cell phone in the dumpster and poisoning our own environment or “recycling” the technology and poisoning people who had nothing to do with and received no benefit from the use of the cell phone during its working life. I personally have every cell phone I have ever owned in my desk drawer because I have found no good answer to this very question. One reporter, Graham Russell, believes he has found the answer.

“If you’re a company needing to find a safe way to get rid of your old electronic equipment in Colorado, Utah or Nebraska, you have an obvious option. Guaranteed Recycling Experts (GRX – guarantees to completely destroy your e-waste, including any data remaining on hard drives or in printer buffers, and will document for you where the constituent materials end up. GRX encourages you to audit its facility at any time and to talk to its downstream partners to verify how they handle the material GRX sends them. By pursuing a strategy based on the principles of sustainable business management in an industry populated by many unscrupulous operators, GRX has built a competitive advantage in 5 short years that has made it by far the largest e-waste recycler in the Rocky Mountain region.”

And for those whose businesses lie beyond the Rocky Mountain region? Are we just to trust any recycler who promises they have good intentions? My gut says no. Few individuals have the time or resources to check up on recycling agencies themselves, so I feel the only way we can ever really be sure is to establish some sort of certification system similar to the FDA. The situation we face today is actually very similar to that described in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and I hope, for the sake of our environment and the people in these poor recycling cities that the recycling business evolves as the commercial food industry did. Through exposure of the ills and injustices I hope we win a government agency with some kind of certification process that will assure a certified company follows ethical and legal procedures in disposing of our electronics.

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Unfortunately, due to the pattern of recent events it seems the United States is not very receptive to regulation of electronics exports. In fact, as Susan Moran of The New York Times points out, we were the only industrialized country to refuse to sign The Basel Convention, a treaty to prohibit dumping e-waste in other countries, and the only substance that we regulate the export of is lead, which still often flies under the radar and makes its way to the third world.

This situation begs the question: as the leader in production of electronics and subsequent e-wastes do we have a responsibility to stop the export of toxic e-waste to poorer countries, or do we sacrifice the health of these people in the name of Capitalism and a free market?

The increasing severity of the amount of e-waste we produce causes one to question whether we could actually fix anything if we tried. Scrapping yards are not just limited to rural China. Greenpeace notes that the problem is spreading to India with tens of thousands of workers in Delhi and more found in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai.  Moran states that we are dumping on “other countries that are in no position to deal with our waste,” but are we even in the position to deal with our own waste?

Considering the Big Picture

The sheer amount of electronics America goes through is an impossible problem, and to suddenly switch to processing all of this waste ourselves would be an incredible feat that we may not have the time, resources or space to achieve. Purely domestic recycling would mean taking complete and utter responsibility for our wasteful and destructive actions. We would be required to see the massive stacks of our old electronics waiting to be broken down and we would risk poisoning our own children and cities with some of the most dangerous substances on earth.

e_waste_09Unfortunately, even if we were to halt the shipments of waste into China and other poor areas of the globe, the problem would not be solved. Guiyu is so polluted that the health issues are sure to be felt for generations after the dangerous “recycling” processes stop, if they ever do. To simply halt the shipment of electronics would probably cause the people of Guiyu more harm than good because to strip them of their access to the small bits of scrap metal would be to strip them of their only real source of income leaving them with no means to support themselves, let alone reverse the medical and environmental harm years of recycling have caused. To cease the smuggling of electronics and nothing more would mean leaving these people to rot, literally, in their toxic environment. So what do we do to remedy the problem? One tech journalist, John Biggs, suggests more easily recyclable electronics, but his suggestion like many others is feeble in the wake of this growing problem.

Americans seem to have a tendency to get themselves into these situations that are difficult to remedy when it comes to technology because as Lewis Mumford mentions in his essay ‘The Highway and the City’, “they are trading a permanent good for a very temporary advantage” (Mumford, 365). In this essay he is referring to our habit of building new roads straight through cities to alleviate traffic for a few years rather than rather than focusing on “the more permanent requirements of regional planning” which would alleviate traffic for decades, even lifetimes (365), but the same pattern is seen in our infatuation with electronics. We continually build, buy and throw away electronics with no thought about how wasteful our habits are or where our worn out cell phones will end up. We consume and replace at an alarming rate and leave the heaps of wasted plastic and metal and toxins for someone else to deal with and the environmental issues to be addressed at some later date. What we need is a revaluation of this lifestyle. We need to think to the future and preemptively prevent issues such as these rather than addressing them as they become severe and often irreversible.

80637358To continue our current rate of electronics disposal means to leave the people of Guiyu, Delhi and countless other rural, poor cities to cancer and birth defects and allow the environmental harms their recycling tactics cause to worsen and spread to other areas. But to save these people and cease the environmental poisoning means to drastically alter our way of life. It would mean not getting to update that cell phone every six months or not buying that bigger television, faster computer or better stereo Americans constantly crave. It would mean challenging our morals and shifting away from a stuff-centered way of life. It might even mean risking health issues of our own to take responsibility for our garbage and break it down domestically. Are we strong enough in our values of freedom and democracy to make these sacrifices? Is human nature on the whole kind enough to pull off this one grand selfless act?

recycle-cellphoneHerein lies what I believe to be one of the most problematic ethical issues of our age. With the slow down in our economy we have come to a crossroads, a chance to revaluate our role as individuals and a country. Do we continue unrestrained progress at the expense of these people in developing countries and cling to distant and unfounded hopes that someday the resulting technology will help their situation? Or do we redesign our world, make sacrifices, and start working towards a better future for everyone?

To find places to e-recycle, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.


What do we owe to the people of Guiyu China and other poor countries whose lives are directly impacted by our actions? Do we have a responsibility to cease electronics shipments and clean these areas up?

What suggestions do you have for cleaning up this electronic mess we have made? Policy changes? Domestic Recycling? Lifestyle changes?

What do you think of this issue in terms of technological determinism? Do we have the power to overcome the maladies caused by technology or are we doomed to continue down a path of environmental destruction?

Works Cited
Basel Convention. UNEP. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <>.
Biggs, John. “Guiyu, E-waste Capital of China.” Web Log post. CrunchGear. TechCrunch, 04 Apr. 2008. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <>.
“Dailymotion – Waste Management Matters, Meet the Global Waste Challenge.” Dailymotion – Online Videos, Music, and Movies. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <>.
“Following The Trail Of Toxic E-Waste.” 60 Minutes- CBS News. 30 Aug. 2009. Web. 15 Mar. 2010. <>.
Hanks, Craig. Technology and Values. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.
Moran, Susan. “Panning E-waste for Gold.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 17 May 2006. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <>.
Pelley, Scott. 60 Minutes. The Wasteland. CBS News, 30 Aug. 2009. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <;photovideo>.
Russell, Graham. “Electronic Waste – Sustainability Finally Triumphs over Unscrupulous Practices.” Clarity Digital Group, 29 Aug. 2009. Web. 15 Mar. 2010. <–sustainability-finally-triumphs-over-unscrupulous-practices>.
“Where Does E-waste End Up?” Greenpeace China. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <>.
Where Does E-waste End Up? Youtube. Greenpeace International, 22 Feb. 2008. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <>.

5 Responses to “Ethics and Electronic Waste, Part 1”

  1. KCampbell says:

    Looking at the pictures of Guiya, China is shocking, as is seeing the footage of the other e-waste dumps in impoverished areas where people are exposed to all this toxic waste without any safety precautions for themselves or for the environment. I never really thought about how dangerous old electronics could be, but it makes sense — we’ve known about the dangers of things like fluorocarbons in refrigerators, and handheld electronics would inevitably contain toxic elements as well.

    As with any “waste” problem, the issue is that we don’t have to be surrounded by the things we discard — instead, they are being shipping overseas and most people never have to face to outcome of their decision to buy new electronics and just throwing away the old ones. I think the problem is two fold: one is our obsession with always updating our electronics and not thinking about how constantly making new products is affecting the environment; and the second is that we are able to ship our problems overseas and feel like it is not our issue anymore. I think the solution to this issue lies in making people more aware and accountable for their consumption patterns, and also making the environment more of a priority. Getting new electronics can be fun, convenient, and trendy, but that’s just because we put our values in those things. I think we need to shift our value system to include the environment and the people in these countries who are getting sick from disassembling our old electronics, so that we become more focused on the planet and the people who live on it than the technology we feel we need to constantly be distracting ourselves with.

  2. jamesbiehl says:

    Of course the ominous consumer mindset of first world countries has a major role in this overall problem – but I wonder how much, statistically speaking, consumer e-waste contributes to the problem, as opposed to industry computer waste. This is a crucial piece of information which could really guide my intentions, as a young person seeking to start a sort of computer re-use business here in Seattle, WA. Please do share your findings, if you researches such.

  3. My issue with “E Waste” is that recycling is seen as the immediate response. I would argue that re use for the most part is the optimum solution for EE that is no longer required – non function irreparable items excepted. These days most pieces of electronic equipment are fully functional being render “unwanted” merely by the rapid pace of technological development and shifts in fashion & style. These perfectly re usable items should not be regarded as waste but for many people, when the new device is acquired, the easiest thing is just to put the old one in the trash. We need to promote a culture where this is not the case and provide the mechanisms for transfer for used items to first user to second user to third user and so on on a much bigger scale than we have at present.

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  5. codielee says:

    People should be more responsible to the way they dispose of their electronics. Of course, this won’t solve the third world’s e-waste problem completely but it will help significantly to reduce the electronic waste transfered to countries like China and Ghana. Companies like Tom’s Junk Collectors are one of the few examples for responsible electronic waste disposal. All the waste they collect is recycled according to all waste management legislations.

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