We’re Losing the War against E-Waste, New Report Says

The post-Christmas season is an e-waste high water mark in the United States. New computers, phone docks, wireless speakers, and watches under the Christmas tree crowd out the old(er) ones. What isn’t donated or recycled usually makes its way to the trash. And a recent study by the United Nations University and MIT has details on just how high our e-trash hoard is getting.

In the US, about 10 million tons of new electronics entered the market in 2012. And Americans dispose of nearly as many old electronics each year as we buy new ones. In fact, the United States topped the chart in terms of e-waste generated per resident, according to the study—65.5 pounds of e-waste per person, each year. That’s like throwing a Golden Retriever-sized hunk of electronics right in the trash.

Unfortunately, the surge shows no sign of slowing, especially as electronic generations decrease. The report indicated that even products like televisions, which families used to keep for decades before disposal, are suffering from shortened lifecycles.

The combined effect of new electronics flooding the market and faster upgrade cycles: more e-waste. Based on current trends, the study predicts that global e-waste rates will jump by a third in the next four years: an annual volume of 65.4 million tons—the weight equivalent of 200 Empire State Buildings or (if your interest runs more toward ancient history) 11 Great Pyramids of Giza.

It’s not all bad, though. All those recycling awareness campaigns seem to be working. Of the 258.2 million used computers, monitors, TVs and mobile phones that the US was ready to discard in 2010, two-thirds of the individual units were collected for reuse or recycling.

Interestingly, MIT’s collection rate estimates are much higher than the EPA’s, which currently puts collection rates at just 25% (huge discrepancy is a result of different calculation methods and different data pools). But even if collection rates are increasing, they aren’t nearly high enough. A collection rate of 66% still yields 170 million computers, monitors, TVs and phones left to rot in landfills across the United States—not to mention other forms of e-waste.

And as more and more things—fridges, toys, household appliances, and accessories, for example—become computerized, less obvious forms of e-waste will be hitting the market. It’s easy to make the connection between a giant CRT monitor and e-waste; it’s less easy to make that connection with singing birthday cards. Nobody thinks twice about trashing them, but they’re e-waste.

The Export Problem Reframed

e-waste in Africa

Perhaps the most interesting revelation from the new study: E-waste is as much a local problem as it is global.

Do a Google image search of e-waste, and you’ll see photos of children burning old electronics in some far-flung corner of the globe—usually Africa. It’s true: I’ve taken some of those photos myself. Some e-waste does get sent overseas, where it is repaired, refurbished, resold, reused, and informally recycled. That recycling is not all clean—in a few African dumps, children do burn computer parts to get at the raw metals inside. But the percentage of e-waste that is exported at all is much lower than many reports have claimed.

While some activist groups have suggested that 80% of used electronics are exported irresponsibly, the MIT study found that only 8.5% of US e-waste is exported. And then, very few of them actually go to Africa.

Graph from UN report shows the destination region of used electronics exported for reuse, repair, and recycling. NA stands for North America and LAC for Latin American Countries.

MIT’s estimated export percentages are likely at the low-end of actual export levels. Tracking the international movement of old electronics is notoriously complicated. Despite heightened attention, rigorous regulatory oversight over the export of used electronics is still lacking. And, as the report notes, tracking all the data is hard: used electronics aren’t consistently categorized and their end uses aren’t always clearly defined. But even adjusting for inflation, the actual percentage of e-waste that the US exports is much lower than we ever thought.

That’s a game changer, and it radically reframes the conversation we should be having about e-waste. The possibility that African children could be burning your old desktop makes for compelling motivation to recycle responsibly. But it also externalizes the e-waste crisis—as if e-waste (and the pollution inherent to disposal) isn’t something that happens here; it happens over there, wherever that is.

These new export numbers mean that e-waste is a much more local problem than we thought it was. It means that e-waste isn’t just going “over there” and polluting their water and poisoning their children. It is happening here, too, just more slowly—toxins leaching into water sources via landfill leaks instead of toxins contaminating the air through open burning.

And that puts the onus more fully on us than ever before. For the very first time, we know that it’s not unscrupulous exporters who are primarily responsible for the e-waste crisis. It’s us: our collective addiction to gadgetry; our predilection toward ending instead of mending; our tendency to throw things away, even though there is no such thing as “away” anymore. And it’s our responsibility to fix the problem—hopefully before it trickles down from landfills and into our backyards.

Want to learn more about the e-waste crisis? We’re putting together an e-waste resource on iFixit.org, including tips on how to help.

This article also ran with TreeHugger.