For most of us, environmental protection means saving trees, cleaning up oceans and the very air we breathe. But what about basic human rights? How is it that our discarded television sets or computer monitors are threatening the environment and the health and lives of humans?
Currently, up to 80 percent of this electronic waste meant for recycling is quietly exported to countries. Computers, radios, and television sets are dismantled in a crude fashion by child and adult laborers likely unaware of the hazardous toxins with which they are working. This means big business not only for the United States but recipient countries such as India, Pakistan and, especially, China – where environmental restrictions are lax and the economies poor.
This is why I participated in a trip last month to China with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a delegation of other U.S. business leaders. I fulfilled my goal of helping China, currently one of the world’s biggest importers of electronic waste, deal with its burgeoning eWaste problems and introduce better methods of disposal for computers and electronics. I also shared the true extent of damage that electronic waste exports have on China’s population’s health and their environment.
It is estimated that more than 350 million computers in the United States will soon become obsolete and are, currently, the fastest growing portion of our waste stream. Just as shocking, more than 40 percent of heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium in landfills come from electronic equipment discards. Just one-seventieth of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate 20 water acres of a lake, making the fish unfit to eat.
Currently, many electronic waste firms remove the valuable metals from equipment and send the remaining scrap to landfills or incinerators. Without adequate protections, workers dismantling discarded electronic equipment are exposed to many chemicals and their negative health effects.
Corporate practice and public policy have failed to address these problems. At present, the cost of managing discarded computers and electronics falls on taxpayers and local governments. U.S. brand owners and manufacturers have dodged their responsibility for end of life product management while public policy has failed to promote producer take back, clean design and clean production.
Although electronic waste remains highly unregulated in the United States, concerted efforts are being made to curtail its improper disposal. Some recycling companies now guarantee in writing that the items dropped off will not be sent abroad for dismantling. This is a start and these companies are not alone. The Seattle-based Basel Action Network and The Human Rights Watch, for instance, run programs to eliminate this trade.
I personally am committed to doing my part in California to ensure the highest ethical practices for the eWaste industry. My visit to China helped me understand, even more, the importance of this. You can do your part by simply locating a local, qualified e-waste organization and disposing of your electronic junk. Together, we can save lives around the world and clean up our landfills here at home. We can also pick up the slack where government and manufacturers have fallen short.
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