Photograph by: Peter Essick, National Geographic January 2008
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is high-tech trash that includes cast-off televisions, computer monitors, keyboards, mice, processors (CPUs), printers, scanners, fax machines, pocket computers (PDAs), walkie-talkies, baby monitors, certain kinds of watches, and cell phones—in other words, anything digital that’s no longer being used. Added together, this information-age detritus makes up the fastest growing category of waste in the U.S. And the more complex the circuitry, the more complicated the equipment’s disposal, since electronics contain toxic substances such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, and beryllium that pose a hazard to both humans and the environment.
E-waste has many types of poisons built into it. Some of these toxic substances are what make the devices safe when they operate. Cathode-ray-tube televisions and computer monitors, last-century standbys of home and office, have enormous amounts of lead built into the glass to stop stray radiation from escaping. If these old TVs and PCs are improperly discarded at the dump, they can shatter and release dangerous amounts of lead into the ground and eventually into the water table. Extreme care must be taken to remove the lead from the glass and dispose of it in an ecologically sound manner.
Semiconductors in computer chips and modern circuitry also contain many poisons, including gallium arsenide, cadmium, and beryllium. Mercury is sometimes used in switches. PVC, a known carcinogen, is used in the plastic coatings of the wires and cables, and brominated flame retardants are included in other plastics, such as the outer casing of processors. If these products are burned, or fragmented and pulverized into dust—as happens in some low-tech developing-world recycling operations—they release highly toxic substances into the atmosphere. If they’re thrown into landfills and allowed to break down over time, they release the same poisons into the land and possibly into the water table.
Lead is toxic to the kidneys, accumulating in the body and eventually affecting the nervous and reproductive systems. Children’s mental development can be impaired by low-level exposure to lead.
When burned, PVC produces dioxins, some of the most hazardous carcinogens known.
Brominated flame retardants have been linked to fetal damage and thyroid problems.
Barium produces brain swelling after a short exposure. It may cause weakness in muscles as well as heart, liver, and spleen damage.
Hexavalent chromium damages kidneys, the liver, and DNA. Asthmatic bronchitis has been linked to this substance.
Mercury is known to harm developing fetuses and is passed through the mother’s milk to newborns. In adults it can cause brain and kidney damage.
Beryllium causes acute or chronic beryllium disease, a deadly ailment affecting the lungs.
Cadmium is a carcinogen and long-term exposure leads to kidney and bone damage.
According to some reports, many of China’s famous e-waste recyclers have been driven underground. The Chinese rock song in this video protests against the environmental degradation caused by e-waste.
Much of the e-waste cast off by the United States and Europe goes to India, where people recycle—or perhaps recapture—valuable high-tech parts in the most primitive ways. This video—made by Greenpeace, the international environmental and antinuclear activist organization—gives a street-level glimpse into the world of e-waste processing in India.
Disposing of e-waste is a global concern. While the developed world has consumed the largest share of the more than one billion personal computers sold, the less-developed countries have tended to pay the environmental price. Cheap labor and lax environmental laws have created an e-waste trail from the developed world to Asia and Africa, where many of the digital discards are sent for reprocessing. Workers often take the computers and their toxic monitors apart with no protection from such hazardous substances as lead, cadmium, or beryllium, and that can easily compromise their health and pollute their land and water. An international accord known as the Basel Convention has banned the export of such hazardous waste to poorer countries, but the practice continues, as pointed out by Chris Carroll in National Geographic’s January 2008 issue.
According to the Basel Action Network, the recyclers in those countries reap only about six dollars’ worth of gold and other material from our unwanted electronics.
Local charity drives in the U.S. often collect old computers “for Africa” or other far-flung places, on the assumption that the inhabitants need these modern devices if they’re to “catch up.” A few of these hand-me-downs arrive in a usable condition after some refurbishing, but more often the recipients wind up footing the bill for the disposal of the West’s well-intentioned handouts.
Some companies have set up programs that enable consumers to return yesterday’s must-have electronics. Apple and Dell are among the manufacturers with such a return policy, which may include the cost of shipping the obsolete items.
Information on which programs will take your computer in your local area can be found here:
Computer Take Back
Other links with useful information on take-back and disposal programs:
My Green Electronics
The EPA estimates that, on average, Americans replace their cell phones every two years. Many are simply put into drawers at home, but most unwanted phones are tossed in the trash bin rather than recycled. California is one state that has made it illegal to throw away cell phones. Still, most communities offer options for disposing of these old lifelines.
Townsend, Timothy G., Stephen Musson, Yong-Chul Jang, Il-Hyun Chung. “Characterization of Lead Leachability From Cathode Ray Tubes Using the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure.” State University System of Florida, Florida Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management, December 1999.
“End-of-Life Management of Cell Phones in the United States.” University of California, April 2006.
Last updated: September 28, 2007
By David W. Wooddell, National Geographic staff
Recycling is the substitution of scrap for virgin materials. When used products, empty containers, and packaging—including such items as milk cartons, cereal boxes, empty paper-towel tubes, old shoes, broken screwdrivers, juice bottles, and leftover potato peelings—are thrown away, the waste is typically taken to a landfill where it’s sorted and then either buried or incinerated.
Redirecting trash to reprocessing centers for conversion into raw materials conserves the world’s finite natural resources, including trees for paper pulp, oil and natural gas for the production of plastics and polymers, and ore for the manufacturing of metals.
Besides protecting resources, recycling basic materials such as aluminum drinking cans, plastic water bottles, newspapers, and steel from automobiles reduces pollution and substantially decreases energy use. According to an article titled “Recycling: The Big Picture” in the January 2008 issue of National Geographic, “For aluminum, recycling can cut energy consumption by 95 percent; plastics, by 70 percent; steel, 60 percent; paper 40 percent; and glass, 30 percent.” Part of the key to energy reduction is the efficiency with which these materials are gathered, since it makes little sense to expend a great amount of energy to save only a little material—one reason many municipal recycling programs have become more efficient in the way they gather material to be recycled.
Zeller, Tom, Jr. “Recycling: The Big Picture” National Geographic (January 2008), 82-87.
In 2005 nearly 8,550 curbside recycling programs were operating in communities across the United States, and they recaptured 58 million tons of municipal solid waste. That same year 3,470 composting programs collected approximately 21 million tons of grass and tree trimmings for soil enrichment. Combined, the programs accounted for 32 percent of the municipal waste that would otherwise have made its way to the trash heap or incinerator.
Some items can be recycled more efficiently than others. According to the Energy Information Agency, 68 percent of steel is recycled, making it the most recycled material in the U.S.
U.S. Recycling Rates:
Auto batteries: 99 percent
Steel cans: 62.9 percent
Yard trimmings: 61.9 percent
Paper and paperboard: 50 percent
Aluminum beer and soft drink cans: 44.8 percent
Tires: 35.6 percent
Plastic soft drink bottles: 34.1 percent
HDPE milk and water bottles: 28.8 percent
Glass containers: 25.3 percent
Thanks to strict laws established by the European Union that govern recycling, European countries have a far better overall recycling record than the U.S.
European Recycling Rates:
Glass: 58 percent
Plastic: 24.1 percent
Wood: 39.2 percent
Paper: 70.4 percent
EU Packaging waste and recycling 2004.xls
How much does the world throw away? Here are the numbers for municipal waste for select countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). All numbers are based on surveys.
Waste per person per year (measured in kilograms):|
Czech Republic 280
New Zealand 400
Slovak Republic 300
United Kingdom 620
United States 740
According to the EPA, in 2005 in the U.S. people threw out nearly 246 million tons of material—2.46 pounds per person per day. What are Americans throwing away?
Paper: 34.2 percent
Yard trimmings: 13.1 percent
Food scraps: 11.9 percent
Plastics: 11.8 percent
Metals: 7.6 percent
Rubber, leather, and textiles: 7.3 percent
Glass: 5.2 percent
Wood: 5.7 percent
Other: 3.4 percent
From “Recycling: The Big Picture.” National Geographic (January 2007), 86-87.
Recycling and reusing material is nothing new. Cultures in Asia and Europe long ago saw the necessity of giving used resources a second life; one of the earliest records refers to paper recycling in Japan in 1031. The American colonies didn’t start the practice until 1690, when the Rittenhouse Mill in Philadelphia began recovering cotton and linen fiber from rags for use in paper pulp.
During the American War of Independence, old metal was collected to make weapons. Paul Revere, a silversmith, advertised for scrap, and many a patriot contributed cooking utensils such as cast iron pots to the cause. Some localities established regulations and procedures for collecting rags to be used in papermaking, and, not surprisingly, the ever inventive Benjamin Franklin used paper made from such material in his printing press.
In England in 1801 a papermaker named Matthias Koop invented a process to extract ink from previously used stationery, repulp the used paper, and then use the pulp to make paper suitable for correspondence, invoices, and bills of lading.
During the mid-19th century a demand for canned food rose, driven by the need to supply California Gold Rush miners and, a decade later, soldiers fighting in the American Civil War. Manufacturers in the East developed ways to package meat and fruit in metal containers. By 1854 around 30 million cans were being produced annually in the U.S. for use by the food industry. And so began the need to recapture the metal in the cans.
In Europe in 1865 the Salvation Army began collecting and recycling cast-off materials of all kinds, sending bands of unskilled workers—“Household Salvage Brigades”—out to find waste material that could be reused or repurposed. Eventually that organization would move to the U.S.
The first U.S. curbside recycling program began in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1874. Two decades later New York set up a commissioner of street sweeping to get the city’s burgeoning waste problem under control. Some of the collected items were sorted out and resold to help pay for the program. That led, in 1894, to the creation of a materials-recovery facility that sorted paper, metals, carpet, burlap, twine, and rubber. Shortly after the start of the 20th century a factory opened in Chicago to recycle aluminum cans, and in 1904 a similar facility opened in Cleveland.
World War I increased the need for raw materials. The federal government established the Waste Reclamation Service, with the motto “Don’t Waste Waste—Save It.” The economic collapse and depression in the 1920s and 1930s led to a widespread reuse of materials within homes.
Reuse became critical again when the world went back to war in 1939. In the U.S. the War Production Board created a Salvage Division, which had 20,000 committees with some 400,000 volunteers retrieving metal for war use in campaigns that encouraged people to “get in the scrap.” It was claimed that saving metal stays from corsets produced enough steel to make two battleships—though that may have been an exaggeration. In Chicago 3,000 newspaper carriers were organized by the Herald and American to go from house to house collecting scrap iron. They called themselves "Junior Salvage Commandos."
In 1964 the all-aluminum can replaced the mixed metal “tin” can of the past. The aluminum industry organized a system to retrieve the cans for reuse, and recycling programs began to be set up around the country to facilitate the recycling of aluminum.
The Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 recognized that trash was a resource. By 1970 increasing awareness of the environment—through such events as the first annual Earth Day—brought a renewed interest in recycling. That same year the EPA was created to address the issue of pollution in the environment, and Congress passed the Resource Recovery Act to push recovery methods rather than just efficient disposal.
In 1971 Oregon’s “bottle bill” required a nickel deposit on each bottle when it was sold to the public that would be redeemed when the bottle was returned. The small sum ensured a steady supply of glass bottles for recycling by the soft-drink industry. By 1972 beverage cans collected for reuse produced around 53 million pounds of aluminum each year.
Following the patenting in 1973 of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle, the use of plastic rose. Recycling of PET bottles began in 1977 but didn’t take off in a big way for several years. Meanwhile, the government tried to address the burgeoning refuse problem with the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Landfills began to be more closely regulated and watched, and programs for handling hazardous waste were established. California and then Rhode Island passed recycling laws for beverage containers, and by the early 1990s recycled paper was in widespread use.
Analysis of trash in landfills in the 1990s by academic William Rathje, an urban archaeologist from Arizona, revealed that much trash does not break down in landfills. Plastic garbage bags preserved the refuse rather than allowing it to decompose—a startling finding that led to the invention of biodegradable trash bags. The study discovered that “over 50 percent by weight and over 63 percent by volume of typical residential garbage was recyclable.”
William Rathje, “Once and Future Landfills,” National Geographic, May 1991.
Rathje, William L., and Murphy, Cullen. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. University of Arizona Press, 2001.
Zeller, Tom, Jr., “Recycling: The Big Picture.” National Geographic (January 2008), 82-87.
"The Victory Home: A WWII Home Front Reference Library::http://tvh.bfn.org/metal.html#Posters
Last updated: October 19, 2007