The average smartphone weighs about five ounces; a tablet, less than two pounds. Yet in 2014, the world threw away 41.8 million metric tons of electronics. That figure includes more than just smartphones and laptops, of course. Electronic waste, or e-waste, is composed not only of phones, computers, tablets, TVs, printers, scanners and all things digital; it also includes “almost any household or business item with circuitry or electrical components with power or battery supply” — everything from lamps to clothes dryers — according to the United Nations University report, “Global E-Waste Monitor 2014.” The United States and China together generate nearly a third of the global waste stream (7.1 million and 6.0 million metric tons from the U.S. and China, respectively).

What happens to all this e-waste? Only 16% of the world’s e-waste was recycled by officially sanctioned government or commercial enterprises in 2014, says the UN report. The rest followed one of three paths in the developed world:

  • Some e-waste was simply put in the trash and ended up in a landfill or an incinerator.
  • Some was collected by individuals or private companies outside of official recycling systems (a portion of this e-waste was refurbished for resale or processed into separate materials).
  • Much of what remained entered a secondary market for used electronics and raw materials in the developing world

The details of this secondary market are murky. While there are international rules governing e-waste recycling (discussed elsewhere in this report), there is also a great deal of illegal activity. In fact, up to 90% of global e-waste, worth nearly $19 billion, is illegally traded or dumped each year, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). When Interpol agents checked containers leaving the European Union in 2013, for instance, they found almost one in three contained illegal electronics. That same year, a Colorado-based recycling company was fined $4.5 million and two of its executives were jailed and ordered to pay fines and restitution for illegally shipping e-waste out of the country between 2005 and 2008. Most of what they shipped, which included more than 100,000 cathode ray tubes averaging about 2.5 pounds of lead each, went to China.

Another path e-waste can take in the developing world is commonly referred to as informal recycling. “In most developing countries, there are an enormous number of self-employed people engaged in the collection and recycling of e-waste,” noted the UN report. “They usually work on a door-to-door basis to buy e-waste from consumers at home, and then they sell it to refurbishers and recyclers. These types of informal collection activities provide the basic means necessary for many unskilled workers to pay for their living.”

According to John Lingelbach, executive director of Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), the nonprofit group that manages the R2 e-recycling standards, informal recycling is a vague term that includes some potentially worthwhile activity. He points out that the term refers to activities that pose serious health and environmental risks, but is “also used for companies, in India for instance, that have a building where they’re dismantling electronics and then sending that on to the formal sector, to established companies.” Lingelbach explains that these businesses are called informal “because they are sort of underground: They don’t have regulatory permits, or business permits and are probably not paying taxes.” Citing the potential of these informal recyclers to extend the lives of usable electronics, Lingelbach says that SERI has made improving the performance of the informal sector part of its mission.

Robin Ingenthron, CEO of Good Point Recycling in Burlington, Vermont, is working towards the same end. His firm exports used, working laptops to Ghana. “People in the West forget that if they send something to Ghana, it’s used a lot longer than it is back home,” he explains. “Where I come from, that’s considered good for the environment.”

The problem, famously documented in the CBS News show “60 Minutes” in 2008 (and cited in numerous accounts ever since), is that whatever these informal recyclers cannot sell generally ends up in places like Guiyu in southern China, where “women were heating circuit boards over a coal fire, pulling out chips and pouring off the lead solder. Men were using what is literally a medieval acid recipe to extract gold.”

This primitive treatment of 21st century electronics resulted in a six-fold increase in miscarriages among the women of Guiyu, unhealthy levels of lead in 70% of the children and the highest levels of the pollutant dioxin in the world. Tragically, similar scenes can be found in Africa — Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana, has appeared often in the press — and elsewhere in the developing world.

It’s Complicated

Some progress is being made. At one point, it was estimated 70% of the world’s e-waste passed through Guiyu, but a recent report by Bloomberg BNA revealed, “What at its height was a bustling yet heavily polluted town, with 5,000 or more informal e-waste workshops and dismantling facilities, has been cleared out as part of China’s ‘war on pollution.’”

While “relieved that the cleanup has finally begun,” Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, has voiced concerns about where all the e-waste from the developing world is now going, if it’s not going to Guiyu. According to some reports, e-waste is now also being dumped in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and other Asian destinations.

Agbogbloshie also seemed to be headed in the right direction. On June 25, 2015, Pure Earth, an international nonprofit organization, reported good news about the first phase of a pilot project designed to improve conditions at the site without eliminating jobs. A modern e-waste recycling facility, capable of extracting copper from cables and wires without emitting toxic fumes, has opened. Local people would still able to earn a living as informal recyclers but at much less risk to their health.

But despite the new initiative, that same year, Accra’s government, apparently unnerved by the international attention the e-waste issue was getting, took violent action to shut down the entire Agbogbloshie market, destroying a neighborhood children’s center in the process.

E-waste and National Security

The e-waste challenge extends beyond environmental and human rights concerns. In recent months, a focus on national security has attracted interest in e-waste from new constituencies. In the past, explained John Shegerian, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI), concern over illegal dumping tended to split “almost ideologically.” But when illegal dumping of e-waste jeopardizes national security, everyone takes notice. “No one wants our homeland security to be breached,” said Shegerian.

The first threat concerns data. Shegerian said representatives from both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have told him that the government in Washington today has no statutory way of disposing of their electronic assets. And when electronics are improperly disposed of, they tend to be shipped off to China and other countries, where a large percentage of the time, said Shegerian, “the highest bidders are people who are averse to our homeland interests here in the United States. And they are pulling the hard drives from this material, reverse engineering our secrets and tossing the carcasses in deserts, oceans and rivers in Afghanistan, Africa, India and other parts of the world.”

The second threat to national security concerns substandard electronic components manufactured from America’s own e-waste. According to a report by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, there is “overwhelming evidence of large numbers of counterfeit parts making their way into critical defense systems.” Most of the material used to make these components “is electronic waste or ’e­waste’ shipped from the United States and the rest of the world to China,” explained the report.

Unlike the genuine components, which are manufactured from approved materials under tight supervision in clean rooms, the counterfeit parts are made from materials extracted in places like Guiyu in Guangdong Province. “Once in Guangdong, e-waste may be disassembled by hand, washed in dirty rivers and dried on city sidewalks,” said the report. The parts may then be sanded down to obliterate identifying numbers and marks, and “in a process known as ’black topping,’ the tops of the parts may be recoated to hide sanding marks.”

Computer chips and other components manufactured under these conditions have avoided detection by even trained observers, and ended up “in military systems, including on thermal weapons sights delivered to the Army, on mission computers for the Missile Defense Agency’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile and on military aircraft including SH-60B, AH-64 and CH-46 helicopters and the C-17, C-130J, C-27J and P-8A Poseidon.”

The solution to such counterfeiting, argues Shegerian and others, is to pass federal legislation that would ban the export of unprocessed e-waste, a position he detailed in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Garbage Out, National Security Threat In.” The op-ed, which was co-authored by Allen Hershkowitz, long-time senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-founder and president of the Green Sports Alliance, noted that the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA), first introduced in the House in 2013, “would ban the export of non-tested, nonworking electronic devices, so that recyclers would have to prove that devices are in working condition before they could be shipped overseas for reuse or donation.” RERA, lamented Shegerian and Hershkowitz, “has been languishing in committees since the last session of Congress ended in 2014.”

There is no simple solution to the e-waste challenge. Improving U.S. recycling is part of the answer, but it will take an international effort to shut down unregulated global trade in e-waste. Exposing and eradicating the horrific conditions in places like Guiyu and Agbogbloshie can help save lives, but as the recent experience in Ghana makes all too clear, simplistic responses can do more harm than good. And while national security concerns are generating new support for federal regulation of e-waste, RERA has not even had a hearing in Congress.