Chances are, you can’t live without your iPhone. Or your digital camera, laptop, flat screen TV, etc. We’ve become so used to our electronics that we can’t imagine a life without them. With our increasing dependence comes an exponentially increasing amount of e-waste. For every great new gadget that hits the market, older, outdated iterations head to the landfill. At the same time, with more gadgets hitting the market, the precious materials necessary to meet our demands are becoming harder and harder to come by.
The good news is that some companies in Japan (like electronics giant Panasonic) have figured out how to tap into the e-waste stream to create profitable new industry. At large eco technology centers, workers dismantle everything all types of electronics and appliances, salvaging almost 90% of everything, including precious materials. Toxic materials are separated out and isolated. As proof that trash can indeed be treasure, Canon is known to use recycled components in almost all of its photocopiers and fax machines (no, that’s not why your fax machine is always on the fritz!). These large-scale manufacturers are successfully turning trash into veritable treasure, in a big way.
Unfortunately, we haven’t quite gotten on the ball here in the States. There isn’t really an e-waste industry here yet. When we switched to digital TVs earlier this year, TV manufacturers took some steps to reduce e-waste by offering free recycling programs in all 50 states during the month of January. But with only a few responsible facilities per state and a program that only lasted one month, recycling just wasn’t very practical for people.
Some states, like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota have passed laws dealing with e-waste, requiring manufacturers to arrange for recycling and disposal of consumer electronics that is definitely a step in the right direction. Some manufacturers like Samsung even offer direct recycling programs.
But for now, since the US has yet to sign the Basel Convention which regulates the export of hazardous waste, it is estimated that 50-80 percent of the waste collected for recycling – including e-waste – is exported to developing countries. A lot of our e-waste actually ends up being shipped to China where low-income workers recover the precious materials using methods that release cancer-causing dioxins and have been linked to miscarriages and other health problems. It’s kind of our dark little trashy secret.
Basically, the good news is that as precious materials grow more scarce, we’ll probably see many more of these large-scale eco technology centers like the ones in Japan. India might be next in line to create a new e-waste industry. Dell is apparently launching a new pilot plant at the same time as the City of Mumbai considers building its own e-waste processing plant. Considering that there’s a veritable gold mine to be found in our US landfills, hopefully it’s only a matter of time before we catch on too.