The toxic materials are attached to non-toxic materials and when burned at a low temperature they create the most toxic substances known to mankind. Without the right designs of the equipment, recycling the electronic equipment requires intensive labor and costly technologies to safely separate materials. Electronic toxins can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, and several other health problems. Even though the toxic element can change form they never disappear and other toxic chemicals do not break down so they gather in the food and biosphere. This problem has fallen on others because too few care where their e-waste is ending up.
The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that have not approved an international treaty controlling trade in hazardous waste from richer to poorer countries, called the 1989 Basel Convention. The entire European Union has enforced it with the U.S., Canada, Japan and some others actively opposing this ban. The reason behind opposing the treaty is because there is money in exporting the toxic e-waste even when its export is a violation of the laws of the importing countries.
In the United States, 11-14% is estimated to be sent to recyclers with the high possibility the electronics will not be recycled but shipped overseas instead and the remainder of e-waste is dumped or burned in landfills and incinerators. These disposal methods fail to reclaim valuable materials or manage the toxic materials safely contaminating our soil, water, and air. According to E-Steward it is estimated “70%-80% of the e-waste that is given to recyclers is exported to less developed countries.” In those exported countries the workers are paid low wages and with a weak legal system not able to protect the environment, workers and the communities.
In these underdeveloped countries ancient technologies such as open air burning and riverside acid baths are used to extract a few materials. The rest of the toxic materials are dumped where ever it is convenient to do so. A large amount of hazardous e-waste from the United States is sent to U.S. prisons as well. The e-waste that has been sent to the prisons is processed in less-regulated environments without the worker protections. (Some have a solution to the e-waste by sending equipment and parts for reuse to other countries but several falsely label scrap as reusable when often importing countries are left with unusable equipment.) Released in 2005 a report and film by BAN The Digital Dump: Exporting Reuse and Abuse to Africa showed Africa seeking working equipment, but instead received unusable equipment. BAN also bought hard drives that were imported into Africa with massive amounts of private data freely available for criminal utilization.
The Government Accountability Office which is the U.S. Congress watchdog wrote a report “Electronic Waste: EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation” which describes the crisis as the inadequacy of legislation to control e-waste exports and the lack of EPA enforcement. The responsible thing to do is find a recycler with the right credentials, who has a watchdog auditing them and feel comfortable with the fact you are not dumping your problem on another, a recycler like San Antonio’s Corona Visions and Technocyle.