Many recycling centers across the US promise they recycle old electronics domestically through an environmentally friendly process. However, due to the increased cost of recycling, some companies have resorted to shipping e-waste overseas. Some  electronic recycling processes have declined in profitability in recent years as tech companies are using fewer rare minerals such as gold and copper in their devices. Even when recyclers are able to extract these minerals for resale, the value of these commodities have sharply declined and therefore fail to bring in much revenue.

In order to combat these issues, some businesses ship their e-waste to countries where the devices can be broken down at a lower cost. But with low cost comes even lower environmental and safety standards. Recyclers that uphold their promise to recycle domestically and in an environmentally responsible manner are losing business to these other companies that are simply dumping e-waste overseas. The legality of this practice is a grey area. The US is the only developed nation that has not yet ratified the international treaty of the Basel Convention on dumping hazardous waste in third world countries. Therefore, the US is technically allowed to ship e-waste overseas even though the receiving nations, such as China and Ghana, may have laws prohibiting these imports. Scrap dealers, repairmen, and second-hand salesmen in these countries continue to meet shipping containers at the dock to purchase e-waste from the US, risking toxic exposure in order to profit from recycling the devices. Although this may be an opportunity for these developing nations to repair these electronics, only about 25% of them actually get reused.

Giving third world countries the opportunity to reuse US devices and enter the digital age is an argument for shipping e-waste overseas. By some, it is seen as an attempt to bridge the digital gap between developed and undeveloped nations. Recycling could provide jobs, spare parts, or rare metals that could help growing communities in Asia and Africa. However, the problem is the process of recycling and extracting metals is toxic and often does more harm than good for these communities. The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes the potential benefits of electronic recycling overseas rather than e-waste piling up in landfills. The agency also acknowledges the serious safety concerns of handling used electronics, both domestically and abroad. Lower labor costs and loose regulatory concerns are the main reasons that US companies are exporting e-waste. Handling the devices in the US would be safer due to strict environmental regulations and safety procedures, but the labor and process would cost more than the devices and materials are worth themselves.

The Basel Action Network (BAN), a nonprofit working to fight the export of toxic waste, devised the e-Trash Transparency Project to find out what really happens to devices at recycling centers in the US. They placed GPS trackers on 200 old printers and monitors and dropped them off at various e-waste recyclers, such as Goodwill and Dell Inc., to monitor the location of the devices. This was done between July and December of 2015. As of May 2016, about 32.5% of the equipment has ended up in mostly Hong Kong or other areas with laws that prohibit importing of e-waste. Devices ended up in outdoor junkyards of unpermitted facilities with illegal immigrant workers. These workers smash or burn the equipment, releasing toxic mercury, toner, lead, and other contaminants into the environment. The trackers allowed BAN to see which recyclers, who promise to recycle domestically, actually ship their devices overseas to be disposed of illegally. The data has since been handed over to proper authorities.

The UN Environment Programme predicts that by 2020, the amount of e-waste exported to India will have jumped by 500%, and by 200-400% in South Africa and China. Safety standards in these countries are almost non-existent and many people, especially recycling site workers, are suffering due to the toxic chemicals in the devices that they are handling on a daily basis. In Ghana, orphans anywhere from 12 to 20 years old are working in a slum, burning discarded electronics and releasing toxic fumes into the air. Nigerian workers of all ages throw electronics into dumps and burn the many pieces of equipment that are irreparable. Chinese children have been seen digging in the ash of burned plastics and cooking circuit boards indoors, touching and breathing in hazardous substances and fumes.

Even if the population of these developing nations could potentially benefit from refurbishing and reusing the imported electronics, these products have a shorter lifespan than new products and would ultimately lead to more e-waste in the country. The equipment often arrives in a very poor condition and even if it can be used again after refurbishment, it will not be long before it dies and joins the growing pile of e-waste.


Want to learn more about the topics addressed above? Check out these links for more information:

  • America’s Toxic Electronic Waste Trade: The US is the only developed nation that does not ban exports of toxic discarded electronics. [US News]
  • Location Trackers Reveal Where Your E-Junk Really Ends Up. “This trade is illegal for a reason. It is a blatant externalization of real costs and harm to those least able to deal with it.”- BAN Executive Director Jim Puckett [Wired]
  • E-waste Empire: New York City discards millions of pounds of dead electronics each year. [The Verge]
  • E-waste in Developing Countries Endangers Environment, Locals. [US News2]
  • Goodwill and Dell Inc. Exposed as Exporters of US Public’s Toxic Electronic Waste to Developing Countries. “Toxic e-waste is flowing off our shores every day to substandard operations, harming people and the environment across the globe. Meanwhile, these exports deprive our own nation of green jobs and make it difficult for responsible electronics recyclers to compete and survive.” BAN Executive Director Jim Puckett. [BAN]