ing the wisdom in the tactic originally
designed to preserve substances valuable
to the war effort. Only today’s war isn’t
against a human enemy, it’s a fight to
keep our planet livable.
Electronics manufacturers are increasingly jumping onto the recycling bandwagon, offering safe disposal of devices.
Even municipal and private recycling
depots offer drop-off points for surplus
contraptions. The trouble is all “
recycling” is not created equal.
I wasn’t aware of how unequal various
recycling facilities could be until I toured
a plant that does it right, and they pointed me toward resources that flag abuses.
Some recyclers accept our cast-offs
with the promise that they will be recycled, letting us walk away feeling that
we’ve done our bit to help the environment. Then they pack up the electronics,
put them into containers, and ship them to
Asia or Africa or other regions that doesn’t
have strict laws about toxic substances.
For a mere pittance, workers—many
of them children—extract valuable metals and other substances from the equipment using dangerous and unhealthy
methods. (Can you imagine reclaiming
metal in a pot of hot acid over an open
fire, with only rubber gloves between you
and severe burns or disintegration?) The
remaining detritus is then burned, releasing some truly nasty things into the air,
soil, and water.
Not only is it unethical for these alleged
recyclers to brutally take advantage of disenfranchised people for profit (doing it right
isn’t necessarily cheap), it is also illegal in
many countries thanks to the 1994 Basel
Convention. It bans the export of hazardous
waste from richer to poorer countries. Sadly,
the United States has so far refused to sign.
However, a Seattle-based watchdog organization called the Basel Action Network
(BAN) is working hard to make Americans
aware of the situation through a series of
hard-hitting videos and a website (www.
ban.org) that chronicles abuses and
attempts to educate the public on proper
recycling. Its mission statement is:
“BAN works to prevent the global-ization of the toxic chemical crisis. We
work in opposition to toxic trade in
toxic wastes, toxic products, and toxic
technologies, that are exported from rich
to poorer countries. Alternatively, we
work to ensure national self-sufficiency
in waste management through clean production and toxics use reductions and in
support of the principle of global environmental justice—where no peoples or
environments are disproportionately poisoned and polluted due to the dictates of
unbridled market forces and trade.”
Scary stuff. But it begs the question—how
do you recycle an electronic device safely?
Let’s walk through the demise of a
device at the Sims Recycling Solutions
plant. Sims is a global company that
developed its technology as part of a mining operation. It had discovered that its
technology was also very good at safely
extracting useful substances from electronic waste. And there is a whole lot
of electronic waste! Although about 11
percent of it is recycled, that still adds
up to more than 1. 5 million pounds per
month being processed through the Sims
Brampton, Ontario plant alone.
When a pallet of recyclables is delivered to the plant, it is first weighed and
each item is bar-coded. That allows the
company to issue certificates of destruction to customers who require them.
Each item then goes to a worker who
removes dangerous or toxic components.
That old laptop, for example, contains a
battery full of infinite nastiness (lithium
is not only toxic, it’s explosive), and a