The dirty side of the digital age: know where your old PC will end up

On December 12, 2013, ReCellular, the first cell phone recycling company in the USA, founded in 1991, when there were only 16 million mobile subscribers in the world, was auctioned. At its peak, it recycled 500,000 devices a month, instead of the 20,000 before it was sold. Today, on average, a smartphone is discarded every two and a half years.

It’s not just cell phones, but computers (PCs, notebooks, tablets), white goods (like refrigerators) and home entertainment (TVs and sound systems), electronic toys, toasters, kettles, electric pans and more power supplies, batteries discarded every day – look around you. If it is cheaper to buy a new and more modern one, why fix it?

Globally, the heap of discarded devices is growing exponentially, while economies of scale push prices down on products that, in two years’ time, will be just e-waste.

Played in someone else’s backyard
In absolute terms, Asia today is the biggest contributor to this mountain growing, followed by Europe and North America. In turn, Europe has the highest rate of e-waste generation per capita: 16 kg per inhabitant.

At the top, with each inhabitant producing 1.7 kg, is Africa – one of the favorite destinations for countries in the first world to dump their outdated gadgets (the gif images below are from photographer Andrew McConnell in Accra, Ghana).

Contrary to popular belief, computers and cell phones are not the majority of the so-called e-waste: 31% are small electronic equipment, such as microwaves, electric shavers and digital cameras; 28%, large white goods, such as dishwashers and clothes washers; 17%, equipment for temperature change. like refrigerators and air conditioners; 15% are from monitors (both from computers and TVs); 7% are made up of small IT devices, such as computers and cell phones; and 2% are light bulbs.

All of this material ends up in “recycling centers”, a euphemism for dumps highly contaminated by lead, cadmium, dioxins, furans, arsenic, mercury, PCBs, chromium, vinyl chloride, antimony and beryllium, among other toxic substances from electronics.

Children drink leaded water
Of the approximately 50 million tonnes discarded each year, 70% end up in poor countries, especially Ghana, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. Manufacturers ignore international law and fill ships with containers classified as “second-hand goods” or “donations to charities” (80% of computers arriving in Ghana do not work).

Two places became known as the most contaminated by discarded electronics: the Chinese city of Guiyu and the suburb of Agbogbloshie, in Accra, the capital of Ghana.

The soil in Guiyu has one of the highest concentrations of dioxins and heavy metals on the planet; water has 2,400 times more lead than is considered safe. Before the digital age, it was a village surviving on rice crops.

Today, Guiyu produces sick people: 80% of children suffer from lead poisoning, abortion rates are above the national average and there are cases of birth defects, damage to the nervous system and also lungs, liver and kidneys; leukemia, cancer of various types and death. (The gif images below are from photographer Stephan Irvine).

At the Agbogbloshie dump, adults and children break electronic components to remove anything that can be sold. The remainder (including charger wires and cables) is burned to remove welds and release copper. In buckets, microships are bathed in acid to extract gold.

A new phone every 8 months
Not only has the explosion in demand increased the disposal of electronic waste. Major manufacturers have turned their products into technology brands, with Apple famous for designing devices that are difficult to repair or upgrade.

According to Greenpeace, between June 29, 2007 and November 3, 2017, Apple launched 14 new iPhone models. The first became obsolete in three years.

According to a study by Repair.org and an article on the technology website Motherboard, Apple and Sony are fighting environmental laws and standards that support the repair, updating and recycling of electronic devices. Other electronics companies follow suit, shortening the life of their devices.

Where to discard
If you want to help reduce the world’s electronic waste, take these simple steps: change your devices only when necessary; repair and reuse; buy refurbished appliances; and properly dispose of those that no longer work. If you don’t know where, look on the ecycle page for collection points near you.

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