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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Do You Know What Happens to Your Cellphone When You're Done with It?

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DURBAN, South Africa—I rented a cellphone during my sojourn here to cover the recent climate change negotiations. A local number enabled me to keep in touch with home and office but also, perhaps more importantly, to make appointments on the fly with ever harried international negotiators. The Nokia 2330—which was dubbed, affectionately, my "hellphone" by a colleague for its generally poor reception and abilities—had clearly lived a useful (and hard) life, most recently in the hands of a smiling white-haired lady of European descent who left her picture on the welcoming screen (so much for data privacy). The phone still listed several of her friends’ information as well, a potential goldmine had I been a cybercriminal on the make.

The battered Nokia represents an ever-growing trend in the world of electronics—a second or even third life for gadgets. Such "recycling" is, in part, what has enabled cellphone technology to leapfrog traditional phone lines in South Africa and elsewhere in the developing world—from cellphone banking to entrepreneurial solar enterprises for cellphone charging. But it has also put millions of people at risk for cybercrime attacks. Even more worrying, ultimately, it's a major source of toxic pollution.

M.I.T. researchers tracked e-waste on its travels across the U.S. as well as programmed some refurbished laptops to track their own second lives, the results of which can be seen in this video:

"We can now judge for ourselves if our donated computers really find a new home, or if our e-waste is proving harmful," says David Lee, a programmer for the MIT project.

In fact, e-waste is one of the fastest growing sources of toxic pollution here in Africa and other parts of the world. Ghana, for example, receives shipments of old electronics under the guise of "donations" that are then dumped in massive yards in the slums of Agbogbloshie in the capital city, Accra. The Ghanian government reports that in 2009 alone, 215,000 metric tons of electronics were imported from the E.U. and U.S., 15 percent of which immediately became trash (unlike my rented cellphone) in places like Agbogbloshie.

There workers, including children, extract the precious metals such as copper inside, by hand or by burning the surrounding plastics. Recycling 100,000 cellphones could yield more than $250,000 worth of precious metals—as well as leading to heavy metal poisoning and toxic air pollution, according to United Nations University research. A recent soil sampling at local schools and the produce market in Agbogbloshie found chromium levels more than two times higher than international safety standards and lead levels 12 times higher. Those problems aren't confined to Ghana either—chemicals used in electronics are routinely found in American blood and urine samples by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, thanks to electronics dumped here. Plus, due to such imports, the U.S. State Department ranks Ghana as one of the top sources of cybercrime, thanks to the personal information often lingering on trashed electronics.

According to the Basel Convention, 400 million metric tons of e-waste are produced globally every year. Americans own some 3 billion electronic gadgets, ranging from cellphones to computers, of which roughly 400 million get replaced every year. As a result, the U.S. alone produces 372 million gadgets’ worth of waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some 85 percent of that e-waste—which contains everything from brominated fire retardants that bioaccumulate to the same heavy metals found in Agbogbloshie—is simply dumped in local landfills. A further quarter of a billion gadgets sit in "storage"—corporate warehouses or desk drawers—waiting to join this fast-growing waste stream. Just think of the number of television remote controls used in an average lifetime, or the Zip drive (or even—remember these—floppy disks) moldering in the garage.

Roughly 14 percent of U.S. e-waste is "recycled," which too often means shipped to developing countries like Ghana, or otherwise improperly disposed of, according to an April 2011 report "Tackling High-Tech Trash" by Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization based in New York City. "Producers in this very profitable industry need to take more responsibility for the disposal costs that, to this point, have been borne largely by local communities and the environment," Demos program director Lew Day said when the report was released.

One clear solution is to recycle responsibly. Companies like LG Electronics have committed to use only e-Stewards-certified recyclers—the certification standard run by the Basel Action Network that forbids exporting hazardous e-waste, among other criteria. Waste Management and Electronic Recyclers International run e-Stewards–certified recycling centers across the U.S., part of a U.S. electronics recycling industry that collected and processed 3.5 million tons of used electronics in 2010. "A robust electronics recycling industry in America would create new opportunities to efficiently and profitably address a growing pollution threat," said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson at an event in Austin, Tex., this past July to announce new federal guidelines for managing e-waste, given that the U.S. government is the single largest consumer of electronics.

On the global front, on October 21, the 178 countries that are party to the Basel Convention agreed to ban all exports of hazardous wastes from developed to developing countries, including e-waste—an agreement expected to take effect in a few years, though the U.S. has not signed on to the international effort. In fact, U.S. federal efforts to cope with e-waste do not include a ban on such export. U.S. policy "does nothing to prevent e-waste exporting, which squanders our critical metals resources, and poisons children abroad while exporting good recycling jobs from our country," argues Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network.

Another solution might be to change the business model of the electronics industry, from planned obsolescence to heirloom gadgets. Think a watch that can be handed from father to son, rather than a cellphone that demands to be swapped annually. That may not prove too palatable to major electronics manufacturers, however, which is why, by and large, they support "responsible recycling" initiatives or have implemented takeback programs like Apple's or Sony's, and better design efforts, such as Stanford University's move to make a laptop that is more recyclable. Ideally, better design would include modular designs that can be upgraded, perhaps as simply as switching a SIM card allows one to swap phone numbers. "It's very hard to narrow in on a component to swap," Lorie Wigle, general manager of Intel's eco-tech office, told me this past June. "There's a consumer problem," given the appeal of new designs. But just think of the waste (and headache) savings if all rechargeable devices could be charged by one universal charger and transformer, perhaps with a set of adapter plugs.

In order to facilitate recycling, it would also make sense to make it easier for consumers to remove personal data from now-unwanted devices—and to make far more clear the best possible programs for free recycling. That way one little old lady's discarded cellphone could find a useful second life anywhere in the world, untroubled by the possibility of a toxic or criminal legacy.

Video courtesy of MIT SENSEable City Lab

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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