Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the names of a company and its chief executive. The company is E-Waste Systems, not Waste Systems, and the CEO is Martin Nielson, not Martin Nielsen. This version has been corrected.
Apple sold 4 million units of the new iPhone 4S on its release weekend, soundly beating the previous iPhone launch record of 1.7 million. The device’s early success serves as a well-deserved tribute to the late Apple founder Steve Jobs. But it also raises some serious environmental concerns. As Apple and other smartphone manufacturers churn out newer and increasingly amazing gadgets, consumers worldwide keep tossing out perfectly functional old phones. And all this electronic refuse threatens water, soil and air.
The problem, of course, isn’t limited to smartphones. Americans trashed more than 20 million televisions, 157 million computers and computer accessories, and 126 million mobile phones in 2007, according to the most recent EPA data. In 2006, the United Nations estimated that we threw away between 20 million and 50 million tons of e-waste globally, which constitutes
5 percent of total municipal solid waste. The developing world tripled its disposal of electronic junk in the last five years.
While the sheer volume of electronic garbage is impressive on its own, it’s the chemicals involved that concern environmentalists. Electronic screens made of glass can be up to 27 percent lead. Computer circuit boards contain between 30 and 100 times the concentration of lead that is considered hazardous by the EPA. The metal can accumulate in the soil and disrupt natural ecosystems. Plants take lead in through their roots, and it can be passed on to grazing animals. While it’s not particularly water-soluble, it can leach into the groundwater under the right conditions. Computers that are incinerated can also release lead into the air.
Electronic waste also contains mercury, which is used in flat screens and can leach into groundwater if not properly collected by the lining systems in landfills. Eventually it could then make its way into the aquatic part of our food chain: fish. If consumed, mercury can cause nervous system damage. Cadmium and chromium, other metals used in electronics, are carcinogenic and can enter both the air and the water supply.
The environmental watchdog group Greenpeace has been hounding electronics manufacturers for several years about brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, both of which were once widely used in smartphones and other electronics. A few of the companies, including Apple, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Nokia, have taken notice and eliminated the chemicals , while others have promised to do so in upcoming years.
The European Union is leading the charge to deal with electronic waste. The Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances rules came into force in 2006, sharply limiting the amount of certain hazardous chemicals such as lead, chromium, and mercury that manufacturers could include in their products.
Recycling is also on the rise. The EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive, requires manufacturers to ensure that 8.8 pounds of electronic waste per inhabitant of each member state be collected for recycling. A proposed revision would change the requirement to 45 percent of the weight of electronic products put onto the country’s market, increasing to 65 percent in four years. California is the most active U.S. state in managing e-waste, seeking to model their regulations on the EU directives. Since the U.S. e-waste recycling rate is currently around 18 percent, we have a long way to go.
Recycling requirements are difficult for manufacturers to manage, because they have little control over what happens to their phones, computers and televisions once they leave the warehouse. In the United States, waste management companies are only recently springing up to help electronics manufacturers track their products from cradle to grave.
“Nearly all of a smartphone is recyclable,” says Martin Nielson, chief executive of E-Waste Systems, one of the many companies now offering to help manufacturers give old electronics new life. “The glass on an iPhone is recyclable. The plastic housing and metal parts can all be recovered.”
Nielson also notes that smelters and other reprocessing facilities are usually happy to accept the materials, because recycled material is cheaper and 17 times more energy-efficient than digging up new stuff.
Several retailers, such as Best Buy, Radio Shack and Apple stores, will accept your unwanted electronics for recycling, whether purchased from their store or not. (some may even offer you a modest store credit in exchange). Unfortunately, there have been reports from developing countries of child workers disassembling electronics using torches, which release a nasty haze of carcinogens. So ask a few questions when you trade in your old device, or better yet, don’t trade in until you absolutely must.