Digital Dilemma

There are computers in the Himalayas, the Andes and the Arctic, and hardly a place left on earth to which someone has not brought a laptop or cell phone. High-tech electronics have transformed the world in ways that benefit us all. But in the 40-plus years since commercial semiconductor and computer manufacturing began, we have paid relatively little attention to the environmental and health impacts of producing and disposing of the microchip-powered devices that propel the Information Age. With 20 to 50 million tons of electronic waste discarded annually worldwide, some 2 million tons of e-waste — laden with lead and other heavy metals — going to U.S. landfills each year and environmentally risky recycling procedures overseas, the problems have become urgent.

When it can no longer be made to work, computer and other electronic equipment begins its circuitous return journey to smelters, refineries and plastics factories. In the United States, 90 percent of our discarded electronics are placed in landfills to slowly degrade, are liquefied in municipal incinerators or are stored away in basements and closets. In the absence of any federal regulation of e-waste, what we do with our electronic discards currently depends on laws enacted by state and local governments.

In recent years, state legislatures throughout the country have introduced dozens of e-waste bills, and a handful of substantive laws have now been passed. Many more are on the way. The impetus for this flurry of activity comes from several sources — primarily from overseas — that have awakened communities to the liabilities posed by improper disposal of e-waste.

Asked what spurred them to action, a number of government officials I have interviewed cited shocking photographs of e-waste exported to China, India and Africa for primitive recycling. The pictures — many taken by the Basel Action Network for its “Exporting Harm” and “Digital Dumps” documentaries — vividly show the health hazards posed by such practices. They also reveal identification tags linking the equipment to businesses, schools, governments and hospitals in the United States and other countries.

At the same time, the European Union (EU) has enacted legislation that makes electronics recycling mandatory and restricts the use of certain hazardous substances in new electronic s. Given the global nature of the high tech industry, these materials restrictions will effectively become international standards. They're already having an impact in the United States.

For example, Maine, Maryland and, most recently, Washington, have passed state e-waste bills that, like the EU's recycling law, require manufacturers to participate financially in the recycling process. Electronics recycling in the EU and in Japan carries no overt cost to the consumer, also a feature of the Washington law. The EU directive also requires manufacturers to provide materials listings to recyclers, a process in which U.S. electronics manufacturers already are involved.

Meanwhile, manufacturers have started expanding their U.S.-based take-back and recycling programs. In addition, several states — including California, Illinois, Michigan and New York — have restricted the use of substances included in the EU's legislation.

This proliferation of e-waste recycling options and requirements — confusing to consumers, recyclers and manufacturers — may prompt substantive action at the federal level. Furthermore, many changes in the design of high tech electronics to reduce their environmental impacts and health hazards are already underway. If the trend toward manufacturer participation in e-waste recycling continues, so should additional progress toward more ecologically sound products. Solving the problems posed by e-waste will require continued action, involving both consumer and industry responsibility, as well as regulation, both local and global.

Elizabeth Grossman is the Portland, Ore.-based author of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, published by Island Press.