Ever wonder where the cell phone or computer you toss ends up? Our writer follows her own digital detritus to the far ends of the earth.

By Ellen Ruppel Shell/ Photography by Peter Essick
Published: May-June 2008

Kopcych insists he is poisoning no one. For example, he says, he used to ship glass yanked from cathode ray tubes (CRTs) by workers wearing face masks and Kevlar gloves to "a beautiful facility" in Brazil, where a factory recycled it into new CRTs for the South American market. Now he sends it to facilities in Malaysia or India. More than half the weight of a CRT is in two layers of glass, one coated with barium oxide, melted in, one with lead. Barium oxide is an irritant to lungs and skin; lead, a deadly neurotoxin. No one wants either poison leaching into the soil or--worse--the groundwater, and in 2000 Massachusetts became the first state to ban CRTs from landfills. California and then seven other states have since followed suit. In these states, CRTs must either be reused or dismantled, their component parts often dealt with individually or disposed of outside of the state's borders.


So reuse sounds like a good option. But environmentalists worry about passing off leaded glass to the developing world, where it could leach into the soil or water supply. They worry, too, about all the other bits Kopcych and his fellow recyclers ship to parts of the world where face masks and Kevlar gloves are in short supply.

Electronics contain exotic metals, many of them toxic to humans. In addition, the mining of these metals has wreaked havoc and despair across the landscapes of many countries. "Forty-five percent of all toxics produced by industry in the U.S. comes from mining," says Robin Ingenthron, founder of Good Point, a recycling company in Vermont. "And it's even worse in some other countries." A few years ago the mining of coltan, an essential ingredient in cell phones, was linked to the slaughter of eastern gorillas in the Congo. In the country's Kahuzi Biega National Park, the gorilla population was cut to nearly a quarter of what it was 14 years ago as miners deforested the land, rebels occupied the area, and hunters targeted the animals that survived as bush meat. Though the coltan rush has abated for now (thanks to a decline in price), mining could still pose a serious threat to the region's wildlife.

Electronics recycling can reduce this problem, as valuable minerals, instead of being wrenched out of the ground, are extracted from old machines and reused. Such "mining" of electronics can be extremely profitable: Each ton of cell phones contains more than 12 ounces of gold, nearly 8 pounds of silver, and 286 pounds of copper.  Circuit boards contain more gold by volume than does gold ore. Smelters in Europe and Canada can melt components at super-high temperatures to extract lead, copper, and other elements. These facilities are held to strict environmental and health standards, and the one I visited in Belgium, Umicore Precision Metal Refining, is an efficient and well-run place. The company, the world's largest precious metal recycler, extracts silver, gold, and 15 other metals from tons of cell phones, circuit boards, and other abandoned electronics. "It's an environmental challenge but also a resource opportunity," a Umicore scientist told me. "Smelting electronics reduces the need for mining, reduces the risk of toxic metals leaking into the environment, and is also good business."

Unfortunately, only five such smelters exist in the world for e-scrap, none of them in the United States, and their services do not come cheap. Which helps explain why roughly 80 percent of "recycled" electronics in this country are shipped to poor nations with lackluster or poorly enforced environmental and health regulations.

Electronic waste harbors roughly half of all the elements on the periodic table, from arsenic to zinc. Left unchecked, these toxins can cause enormous damage, especially in poor countries with no or little environmental remediation. The dumping of electronic trash is proliferating badly in Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Africa, India, Bangladesh, and especially China.


China is ravenous for raw materials, and there are hundreds of thousands of hands there willing and able to mine metal and plastic from the detritus of wealthier nations. The country technically banned the importation of electronic waste in 2002, but a trip last year to the booming port city of Taizhou, about 150 miles south of Shanghai, gave ample evidence that the ban lacks teeth. With 5.5 million citizens, Taizhou is midsized by Chinese standards, but to a Western eye it seems crowded beyond imagination. The city is famous throughout China for its honey-sweet Mandarin oranges, cultivated by farmers for more than 1,700 years. But the day I arrived it was hard to imagine that any tree could blossom in the eye-stinging smog that had turned the late-autumn morning into gloomy dusk. I was met at the airport by a man I'll call Chen, a science teacher at the local middle school who for years has waged an intrepid but quiet investigation into the dumping of e-trash in his city. Chen asked that I keep his real name and that of his school private. He had a six-year-old son, he said, and was worried about retribution.

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Ellen Ruppel Shell

Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor at the graduate program in science journalism at Boston University.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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