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

Switzerland is a small country with few mineral resources and a scarcity of land. Landfills here are not an option. This helps explain why in 1991 Switzerland became the first country in Europe--and the world--to implement a federally regulated e-waste recycling program.Rolf Widmer, an engineer at EMPA, a material testing and research institute partially supported by the Swiss government, offered to guide me through his country's elaborate electronics recycling labyrinth. Our first stop was a collection station on the outskirts of St. Galen, a charming Swiss city once known for its textiles. Christoph Solenthaler, co-owner with his brother of Solenthaler Recycling, which this collection station is part of, has a degree in engineering and speaks elegant, nuanced English. The recycling station was spotless and strictly organized: red bins for garbage, wood, pottery, plastic, tires, and, of course, skis; green bins for CRTs, TVs, computers, and cell phones. People pay by the pound to use the red bins but can dump all they want for free into the green ones. "This is because they pay an advanced recycling fee on the green items," Widmer explained. Later, in town, I visited a department store and checked: The recycling tax on a large flat-screen television was seven Swiss francs, or about seven dollars.

I asked Solenthaler where the flat screens were headed and he scowled. Flat screens, he said, were a vexing problem, in that it was nearly impossible to dismantle them without breaking the tubes and releasing the deadly mercury. The tubes are incinerated but he was not happy about this--he would prefer they were made without mercury. "For too many manufacturers cost is the driver, not concern for the environment," he said.

We left the station and headed toward a dismantling facility housed in an abandoned textile factory a few miles down the road. Esin Isik, the 29-year-old manager, opened a box of copy machine parts. They were spanking new but slightly outdated, and the manufacturers wanted them destroyed to prevent them from being sold illegally for reuse. "We call it Christmas when we get this new stuff," Isik told me, prying open another box with well-manicured fingers. I had no idea what she planned to do with the loot, maybe hang it on her holiday tree. I had seen many such boxes in dismantling centers in the United States, and I wondered whether this was part of what Kopcych meant when he talked about money being "left on the table." The waste was staggering.

At least the parts would not contribute to the world's burgeoning high-tech-trash debacle. In Switzerland 98 percent of electronic waste is recycled or incinerated to produce energy in clean-burning factories fitted with scrubbers to prevent air pollution. In St. Galen alone this energy heats 10,000 homes. Peter Bornand, former chairman of the Environmental Commission of the Swiss Association for Information, Communication and Organizational Technology, told me that the Swiss have always been conscious of their trash, and their natural resources. "We are a small country with no access to the sea and no raw materials," he said. "The problem in the United States is that you believe your resources are endless."

In the European Union, waste from electric and electronic equipment (or WEEE) accounts for roughly eight percent of all waste on the continent. But the EU is addressing the problem with legislation that bans certain toxics from electronics, and an initiative that requires electronics manufacturers to take back from consumers their used and outdated equipment and dispose of it in a responsible manner. The WEEE Initiative didn't take hold until January 2007, but several European countries began taking steps to deal with electronic waste long before this.

In a global economy hungry for natural resources, it has become increasingly clear that recycling is more energy efficient, safer, and more economical than many of its alternatives, especially mining. In the United States, a budding awareness of the inherent value of electronic components has contributed to the explosive growth in electronics recycling. Cell phones--which contain about 60 cents' worth of precious metal each--can now be "bought back," or traded in for new phones, though this is not yet a common practice. And concerns with computer security and the environment have caused some businesses to insist that their discarded machines not leave the country, or end up in a landfill. In the United States there are as yet no national laws or regulations concerning the recycling or shipping of electronics, but a handful of states--California, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, Oregon, and Washington--have instituted controls, such as forcing producers to take back computers and other electronics for recycling. It's likely that more states and more regulations will follow.

America and the world have a longstanding love affair with technology, and few of us can resist the latest gadgets. Thanks to tireless innovation, the shelf life of electronics is brief--the average cell phone is discarded or traded in after about 18 months. Perhaps it's time to awaken to the ugly side of our high-tech habits.

Obviously much work remains to be done. Returning home from Switzerland, I saw that Pizza Hut was offering a free cell phone with the purchase of a large pie. Based on what I had seen in China, I  knew that those cell phones were anything but free.

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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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