The Afterlife of E-Waste

e-waste and e-waste recycling programs can recycle civic e-waste like this Los Angeles laptop.
Image: EarthFix Screen Capture

Much of municipal and consumer e-waste is ending up in illegal scrapyards overseas, and one study has the asset tags to prove it.

E-waste, or electronic waste, is the largest U.S. waste stream with more than 8 million tons per year, according to EarthFix.

A lot of municipalities hold annual or bi-annual events to keep their communities’ discarded electronic devices and computer equipment out of local landfills.

But where does that e-waste, and for that matter, the municipalities’ own e-waste, actually get recycled?

EarthFix recently released a video report about a 2016 study that followed U.S. e-waste, and lots of it is getting dumped overseas in China and Thailand.

The e-waste is often from U.S. police departments, jails, hospitals and libraries–property of public agencies that need to source low-bid vendors.

e-wasteThe Seattle, Wash.-based Basel Action Network and the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology partnered on the study, which tracked more than 200 computers, printers and televisions dropped off at recycling centers around the country.

They found that about one-third of all the tracked equipment was exported to other countries, traveling 2,500 miles on average from the drop-off points.

Basel Action Network then went undercover in Hong Kong, China, posed as e-waste buyers, to learn more about this growing e-waste dismantling hub. The team pulled a few examples of civic computer equipment from U.S. jails and schools from one unlicensed e-waste scrapyard.

Of concern are the environmental impacts of unlicensed recycling facilities overseas–how they dump, and the conditions of their workers–because the devices they break down contain hazards like carcinogens and neurotoxins (mercury).

One of the primary issues for the Basel Action Network, according to Executive Director Jim Puckett, is understanding how rich countries are dumping hazardous waste on poor countries.

The seven-minute report also probes the Dell Reconnect program and its partnership with Goodwill, highlights legislation governing electronics recycling practices and features comments on the recycling market from John Shegerian, the chief executive officer of Electronics Recycling International, the largest U.S. e-waste recycler.

Learn more about state electronic waste recycling statutes on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

About the author

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox is Editor of and Senior Editor at Praetorian Digital. She is based in Massachusetts.