How to Recycle

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The world generates twenty to fifty million metric tons of e-waste each year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
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Friday, 18 August 2006
ImageIf you sleep comfortably having lugged your old computer to a hazardous waste collection site, certain it is being safely picked apart and recycled into next season iPod, wake up. Chances are, your trash was shipped to a rural province in China, where poor, sandal-clad women melt circuit boards in skillets to harvest the precious metals. These workers wear no protection and breathe fire retardants, dioxins, and furans.  As Elizabeth Grossman reveals in High Tech Trash; Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health (Island Press, $29.95), her dense and damning book about the afterlife of techno-trash, much of what we cast away is improperly disposed of--regardless of our efforts—and ends up leaching toxins into the air, water, and soil. Between 2003 and 2010, as many as 3 billion units of consumer electronics generated by the States will head to the global junk pile. If current trends persist, only about 10 percent of this will ever be recycled.

 Part of the problem is that electronics require costly dismantling and sorting of their ingredients. In Europe and Japan, recycling is mandatory, forcing manufacturers to shoulder the financial burden of recycling waste and compelling them to design less-toxic products. Not so in the United States. Lacking tough tech-recycling laws on the federal level, local governments fashion regulations that are hard to follow. As a result, e-waste is discarded along with junk mail and food scraps and ends up in landfills where shattered screens spew lead and mercury and circuit boards leak cadmium, a probable carcinogen.

 “Microchip circuitry may be as invisible as the network of nerves on a dragonfly’s wing,” Grossman writes. “And whole libraries may appear on our desktop screens apparently out of thin air, but unless some radical changes are made in the way we design and produce our information age gadgetry, its ecological footprint will never really be reduced”
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