How e-waste is creating a growing environmental and health crisis across the world

We need policies like Right to Repair to address the dangerous flood of electronics waste

By: Tess Falkner-Kenny, Zero Waste Intern

We live in a tech-hungry world. Each year, an estimated 1 billion phones and 275 million laptops are manufactured worldwide. Since most electronic manufacturers design phones and laptops for replacement instead of longevity, we are generating an alarming amount of electronic waste, or e-waste. When combined with other forms of electronic waste, like household devices and TVs, 59 million tons of used electronics -- equivalent to the weight of 161 Empire State Buildings -- head to the landfill each year. E-waste has become one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world, and experts expect it to continue growing by 3 to 4 percent annually. 

While e-waste recycling can be helpful, it is nowhere near capable of preventing the vast majority of devices from ending up in landfills. At a webinar hosted by U.S. PIRG, Right to Repair and the Road to Zero Waste, Amanda LaGrange, CEO of electronics recycling company TechDump, agreed that we cannot recycle our way out of the e-waste catastrophe. In addition to some domestic recycling, developed nations, including the U.S., have long shipped their e-waste to developing countries both to be refurbished and recycled.

For years, the U.S. shipped large quantities of e-waste to China, where there was a large demand for scrap and resources. Processing costs were cheap, partially due to low labor costs and partially because it was inexpensive to fill shipping freights headed back to China after delivering goods in the U.S., called backhauling. When China enacted its "National Sword" policy in 2018 banning most waste imports, however, a global shift in the e-waste trade took place. 

It’s hard to know exactly what happens to our e-waste once we trash or recycle it. The Basel Action Network, a non-profit dedicated to tracking hazardous waste around the globe, put trackers on 205 devices in 2016, 152 of which went to electronics recyclers. 40 percent of the devices sent to U.S. recyclers were exported offshore, with the vast majority ending up in Asia. While it’s impossible to know exactly how much of our e-waste is exported or where it ends up, it’s highly likely that some old American gadgets ended up in informal recycling provinces in China, like Guiyu. Guiyu serves as an example of just how ugly, environmentally damaging, and dangerous our global hunger for new devices is. 

Guiyu: a case study

Across China, e-waste has accumulated exponentially as a result of both domestic production and  foreign imports. China is the world’s largest producer of e-waste, and a top importer of e-waste from around the world. Less than 25 percent of domestic e-waste in China is recycled in the formal sector, or government regulated facilities. The rest goes to cities like Guiyu and Taizhou, where people in the informal recycling sector extract materials from old devices to sell at a small profit. But the costs of extracting those resources, especially in the informal sector, can be deadly. 

Informal recycling refers to recycling processes not regulated by the government and are generally small, family-run operations. While informal recycling increases the reuse of materials, especially valuable metals inside circuit boards, it has a negative impact on the environment because of the unsafe methods used to extract valuable materials. Recyclers often burn devices to separate plastics and metals, releasing toxins into the air. Moreover, in order to isolate precious metals such as gold, informal recyclers sometimes use dangerous chemicals like nitric and hydrochloric acid which can cause acid rain and lung damage

Informal e-waste recycling isn’t just bad for the environment -- it can be detrimental to human health. In Guiyu, China’s hub of informal e-waste recycling, 81 percent of children have disproportionately high levels of lead in their blood. The water is undrinkable, and the soil has either become infertile or a source of poisonous crops due to contamination from toxic metals like cadmium, tin and magnesium. The process of burning electronic devices to melt away the plastic releases carcinogens, like cadmium oxide, chromium and arsenic, which cause lung cancer.

The takeaway

Electronics are resource-intensive to make and a disaster to dispose of. On paper, e-waste is less than 2 percent of the world’s waste stream by volume. But it causes over 70 percent of the waste stream’s harmful and toxic environmental effects. 

E-waste is a far reaching problem, but there are solutions. Recycling electronics is certainly helpful, but it has inherent limitations. Only a third of electronics in the U.S. are recycled, and some materials, especially plastics, are virtually impossible to recycle

The best waste management practice is to not create waste in the first place: we can do that by repairing, refurbishing and reusing our electronics. Repairing electronics instead of replacing them prevents not only waste, but also the carbon emissions and rare-earth mining associated with making electronics in the first place. 

The CLEAN Future Act recently introduced in Congress would dedicate federal funding to local recycling and reuse programs, including e-waste. However, more legislation is needed to address the impact of electronic waste. One solution is Right to Repair policies, introduced in over half of U.S. states, which would make electronics repair more accessible. The legislation would ensure fair access to the parts, tools, manuals, and diagnostic software necessary to fix electronics. U.S. PIRG has been at the forefront of the fight for the Right to Repair, along with iFixit and the Repair Association, for years. We’ve helped build a broad coalition of small business owners, data privacy and security experts, and environmental advocates who all believe we should be able to fix our stuff.

At recycling facility TechDemp, Amanda and her team see thousands of different gadgets come through the facility every day. It’s impossible to properly refurbish all of them if manuals and parts are restricted. “We can’t achieve the scale that our community needs from us and the world needs from us without Right to Repair,” LaGrange said.

While we collectively work for better policies to address e-waste, you can do your part at home as well. For a start, you can repair electronics rather than replace them, recycle electronics through takeback programs, and try to buy fewer gadgets. Most importantly, you should contact your local elected representatives to urge them to support Right to Repair and the CLEAN Future Act.