Saturday, October 12, 2013

Chemicals in the e-soup!

Ever think what happens when you discard your one year old phone for a new model? It probably adds to the e-waste heap.
The consumer electronics industry is now a multibillion-dollar juggernaut that churns out new products year-round. In 2012, sales of electronics in the United States topped $200 billion, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, an industry group that represents 2,000 companies, including Sony, Samsung, and Apple. The average American household now owns 24 electronic products, many of which will be rendered obsolete within a few years.

In 2009, the most recent year for which the EPA has data, 2.37 million tons of electronics were ready for “end-of-life management,” yet only a quarter of them were collected for recycling.

Every year, heaps of American e-waste, from smartphones to computers to stereo systems, are shipped to India, China, Ghana, Pakistan, Peru, and other developing countries. By some estimates, 80 percent of the U.S. e-waste collected ends up on foreign shores, where regulations are lax and incentive for risk high.

The goods are generally auctioned off in bulk to scrap companies and smelters. These companies pay locals—often including children—meager wages to strip smidgens of gold, copper, and palladium from the discarded devices. Sometimes, this involves concocting a noxious stew of cyanide and nitric acid, then burning the remaining plastic in crude firepits. Throughout the process, workers are exposed to lead, mercury, and cadmium, among other toxic substances.

From mining to manufacturing to recycling, consumers, corporations, and governments need to rethink the life of our devices from beginning to end.

The European Union is ahead in the game and from last year imposed a strict directive requiring that by 2019 member countries collect 65 percent of the weight of all electronics put on sale in the preceding three years or 85 percent of all e-waste generated per year. Under the EU’s policy, retailers will be required to take e-waste from consumers. Companies—retailers, manufacturers, and recyclers—found to be in violation could be hit with stiff fines.

But some believe that the first step is to make manufacturers come out with a list of chemicals used in the process of manufacture. Nobody knows the number of chemicals used in the manufacturing of electronic products. It’s probably in the range of several thousand. Some are very standard, run-of-the-mill chemicals, but others are exotics … and many are extremely hazardous.

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