There are more cell phones in the world than there are human beings. If you thought that our environmental problems were at an all time high, our consistent adoption of technology is going to make the whole scenario much worse.

We know that electronic scrap components, such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful components such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants. Recycling and disposal of what has been called “e-waste” involves significant risks to health of workers and communities in developed countries and great care must be taken to avoid unsafe exposure in recycling operations and leaking of materials such as heavy metals from landfills and incinerator ashes.

Not only are we consuming electronics like never before, but developing countries are the places where the west dumps their e-waste. It is very easy for brokers calling themselves recyclers to export unscreened electronic waste to developing countries, such as China, India and parts of Africa, thus avoiding the heavy expense of removing items like bad cathode ray tubes. Some exporters are accused of deliberately leaving difficult-to-recycle, obsolete, or non-repairable equipment mixed in loads of working equipment and laws don’t exist yet to redefine "waste" in order to protect domestic markets from working secondary equipment. 90% of e-waste ended up in landfills in developing countries in 2003. For example, out of 215,000 tons of electronics imported to Ghana, 70% were used out of which 15% had to be scrapped or discarded.

There is no silver lining to this phosphor cloud; we are going to discover new and more terrible ways in which we have harmed the planet by not coming up with waste solutions as we created technological solutions. The only thing to be done is to create better laws in our country for better disposal, faster than these items can be imported and discarded. Countries like China and India, who lagged behind with their tech growth compared to developed countries but are catching up, had the opportunity to do it right. To create clean technologies, and improve consumption habits seeing the destruction American economic power and western industrial practices have caused. While it is fair to blame the superpowers for having let capitalism create havoc with Third World systems, the leaders of the Third World have done nothing to make sure the same mistakes aren’t replicated (especially India that keeps shouting blue in the face that it always represents the voice of smaller states).

We know that the system of the World Trade Organisation has made sure that poorer countries are locked out of the benefits of global wealth accumulation, and that making international laws that deal with discarded tech from the West will not be easy, especially when the problem is not even an acknowledged one yet. For the US, that leads the charts in terms of producing e-waste, e-waste represents 2% of its trash in landfills but it equals 70% of overall toxic waste. The US is followed closely by China. The US has few domestic federal laws forbidding the export of toxic waste. About 80% of the electronic waste directed to recycling in the US does not get recycled there at all, but is put on container ships and sent to countries like China.

Developing countries utilise methods that are more harmful and more wasteful when disposing off e-waste. This includes tossing equipment onto an open fire, in order to melt plastics and to burn away non-valuable metals. This releases carcinogens and neurotoxins into the air, contributing to smog. China as the new home of e-waste and new hope of tech products will bring more of this to many countries it is linked with, especially Pakistan.

As of 2013, Apple had sold over 796 million devices. Cell phone companies make cell phones that are not made to last so that the consumer will purchase new phones. The number of active mobile devices and human beings crossed over somewhere around the 7.19 billion mark two years ago. Our government isn’t going to do much about it, after all, what really has been done to control industrial pollution in the past? But for those consumers who have an inclination towards recycling and making sure our cities survive for our children, recycling tech is another effort to make which includes using old phones and making sure old computers are recycled and not thrown away. Additionally, what could be a burgeoning industry of used parts as well as huge potential to build engineering and software skills with refurbished computers, is killed by sheer consumerism and desire to have the newest phone on the market. Machines will indeed take over the world, as well as our lungs and bodies with the toxins they have to offer in the long run.

The high value of the computer recycling subset of electronic waste (working and reusable laptops, desktops, and components like RAM) can help pay the cost of transportation for a larger number of worthless pieces than can be achieved with display devices, which have less (or negative) scrap value.


The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.