You know how most of us get new mobile phones every two years? And new computers and new iPods and so on? An unfortunate consequence of this upgrade cycle is a big pile of electronic waste, otherwise know as e-waste.
The components of e-waste have a lot of heavy metals and toxic chemicals embedded inside. Most electronics are not designed with recycling in mind, so the heavy metals and other materials are difficult and costly to separate and recycle. To take advantage of cheap labor and lax regulations abroad, the U.S. ships huge containers of e-waste to poorer countries like Ghana and Vietnam, where people (including children) disassemble and separate the parts for recycling. Often the parts get burned to separate the precious materials or just for fuel. Either way, the burning releases toxic chemicals into the air and into the workers’ bodies. Two videos that help tell the story are The Story of Electronics and Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground by PBS’s Frontline.
Free Geek is a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon that provides for the safe recycling of electronics. Free Geek assures that nothing they take will end up overseas. Their first priority is reuse. They take computers and computer peripherals and either refurbish them to donate to good causes, sell them at their store, give them to their volunteers, or properly recycle the parts. The people I met there were passionate and enthusiastic. Here are my photographs of Free Geek where you can see and learn more. If you are in the Portland area and upgrading your electronics this holiday season, please consider taking your old ones to Free Geek. Otherwise, try searching for an e-waste recycling center in your area.
While Free Geek is a beacon of light in the shadowy e-waste world, a better solution would be for manufacturers to start designing smarter. William McDonough and Michael Braungart have written a book called Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things in which they suggest eliminating the concept of waste. They have also started a Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certification program that rates products with regard to health, safety, environmental, and social responsibility factors. As a consumer, I’ve been trying to make smarter purchases and have thankfully been seeing more and more products that follow the Cradle to Cradle paradigm. If you become aware of some awesome C2C product, I’d love to hear about it on my Facebook or Google+ page.