Apple introduces eight iPhones in the last six years. Smart phone makers such as Samsung, Nokia, and LG flaunt their seductions as well. Have you fallen for the near annual come-ons? Answer by going to that drawer where you have laid to rest all your fond hardware memories – your once beloved Blackberry and first iPhone. They no longer look as gorgeous as they once did.
You know you should probably recycle them, along with the three laptops in the closet and the old clunker TV in the garage. But if you were to recycle them, where would they go? And oh my god, what would happen to all your contacts, your photos, and ten years’ worth of past appointments and private mail sitting on those devices? Didn’t you hear somewhere that recyclers simply ship old electronics off to developing countries? Maybe it’s better just to slip them in the trash. Who will know?
We have been seduced. We have fallen. Our lust for the newest technology has turned too many of us into hardware addicts. And then, after the affair is over, the uncertainty of how to terminate the relationship has turned us into hardware hoarders or secret dumpers. It’s not very responsible, not very safe, and not very secure.
I fully understand the quandary. My 2002 film Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia first exposed the shameful fact that many of our nation’s electronics recyclers are mere collectors and shippers who export our old electronics to China with disastrous environmental and human health consequences. I was afraid of finding some of my own equipment there in the piles of electronic rubble. In 2005, I discovered a similar scandal in West Africa. In 2008, the
situation was even worse when I returned to China with Scott Pelley of CBS’s 60 Minutes to film their award-winning episode The Electronic Wasteland. And this year in June, more than ten years after our cameras first exposed the digital dump, I retraced my steps in Guangdong Province, China. To my dismay, I found it’s still very much ground zero for the West’s hardware infidelities, the digital STDs of our time– toxic electronic waste. This cyber-age nightmare is sadly spreading all over the world– to India, Vietnam, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana, and practically every other low-wage country with a desperate workforce and lax environmental and worker protections.
This trade in toxic electronic scrap is a direct violation of international laws laid out in a United Nations’ treaty known as the Basel Convention, which was designed to prevent the toxic effluent of the affluent from victimizing developing countries. It’s against the laws– laws that the United States alone among the developed industrialized countries refuses to recognize.
Three years ago, in response to this continuing toxic e-waste tide, and in an effort to provide the public and businesses with a socially and environmentally responsible treatment for our hardware addiction, the e-Stewards certification program was created. e-Stewards is quite simply your protection against the ubiquitous fake recyclers, who persist in loading up sea-going containers with your old phones, TVs, and computers all in the good name of recycling and shipping them off to China or Africa – out of your sight, out of your mind.
With e-Stewards, now you can feel far better about letting go of your ex. I am pleased to report that today, on the occasion of the release of the second version of the e-Stewards Standard, over 125 recycling facilities have been certified in North America, and the program is poised to expand around the globe. It is endorsed by over 70 environmental groups including Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace, several major cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, and over 60 major corporations including Bloomberg, Boeing, Alcoa, Bank of America, Well Fargo, Iron Mountain, Samsung and LG. Furthermore, the office supply company Staples now ensures that obsolete electronics taken to any of their retail locations will only be processed by certified e-Stewards recyclers, making it more convenient than ever for all of us to recycle responsibly.
Beyond forbidding the export of hazardous electronic waste in accordance with international law, the new e-Stewards Standard Version 2.0 also requires the most rigorous provisions to ensure that customer data is always properly erased and kept secure. It also mandates fair labor practices such as not allowing child or prison labor. And it requires that workplace hazards such as lead exposure are detected and minimized.
On the occasion of the launch of e-Stewards 2.0, we can all do our part by insisting on only using certified e-Stewards recyclers for our closeted cast-offs and digital dalliances. We can also insist on knowing if our local e-waste collection event, trash haulers, or buy-back programs are using only certified e-Stewards recyclers. We can talk to our school, and workplace administrators about what they are doing with all the old computers after the “refresh”.
A full cure for our electronics consumer addiction may not be found overnight, but at least we can keep our compulsions from poisoning others wherever they live on this hotwired planet. It’s time to remember as far as planet earth is concerned, a smart phone without a smart user is a doomed relationship.