Where iPhones Go to Die

By Andromeda Yelton |

Recently I heard this story on the radio, about what happens to electronics waste. I admit, I’d been vaguely aware of this issue but ignoring it, because you can’t do much research without coming across images like this one:

And then everything is so overwhelming and depressing it seems impossible to cope with: too hard to reconcile the shiny devices I’ve incorporated seamlessly into my life with the reality of children burning electronic trash to salvage a few cents’ worth of copper. But here are some facts:

  • Electronics “recyclers” can and do just ship waste abroad (commonly to China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Ghana, or Nigeria) to trash heaps. The recycling consists of scavenging, done by hand, often by children, with no protective gear, for a pittance. Not all recyclers do this, but there’s no legal barrier to it. (NPR)
  • In fact, US companies are incentivized to do this. The 1998 Basel convention limits countries’ ability to ship hazardous materials abroad, but the US never ratified it. And US laws regulating electronic waste disposal make it expensive to process domestically; much cheaper to ship it abroad. (ABC News)
  • That is, when the laws are enforced, which they’re not. And they focus on CRTs, which means many devices -- including, probably, everything on your desk right now -- are not covered. (GAO report, pdf)
  • Electronics scavenging exposes people to lead, mercury, cadmium -- all bad for you. (Here in MA, where old lead paint is common, I was required to get my child tested for lead exposure because of the potential long-term IQ damage.) Because the process involves setting fire to components, people can inhale these chemicals, and they spread widely into the environment. ABC News
  • How bad for you? Short term: headaches, skin irritation, stomach cramps, respiratory problems. Long term: nervous system damage, kidney damage, cancer, and more (ABC News, eMedicine) And I’m not even getting into the dioxins or beryllium or other toxic chemicals, or groundwater damage and other ecological problems.
  • One hopeful note: the organization that seems to be doing the most about this problem is the Basel Action Network. Their new e-Stewards program certifies environmentally responsible recyclers, and lets you find one near you (at least, if you live in the US; Canada; Monterrey, Mexico; or Cranleigh, UK).

Libraries are supposed to do good in the world. Some libraries do good by aggressively pursuing innovative technology strategies, requiring purchase -- and, someday, disposal -- of lots of hardware. It makes me feel a little sick to think of how much we could hurt the world this way. So, I’m curious: what’s your library’s policy on hardware disposal? Does it reflect conversations about environmental and social justice?

Update (7/13/2011)

While I couldn't find information about Apple's recycling policies at the time I wrote this post, I am now looking to replace my old Mac laptop and wanted to double-check how Apple would recycle it.  There's some admirably complete information at http://www.apple.com/recycling/computer/index.html.  Apple follows the Basel convention, and its agreement with recyclers repeatedly notes that waste is to be processed in the region where it is collected (so, e.g., North American waste stays in North America, and indeed US (lower 48) waste must stay in the lower 48 absent prior written authorization to ship it out).  Apple retains the right to inspect processing facilities, requires that materials be processed within the facility where Apple ships them, restricts use of subcontractors, encourages reuse of serviceable components, has special restrictions on components containing mercury and lead, and specifically forbids export from developed to developing countries.  And there's accountability via reporting and auditing.  So, the title of this post notwithstanding, if you recycle them through Apple, it seems iPhones go to die someplace acceptable.

The rest of your electronics, of course, are still worth investigating.