Mounting Electronic Waste Poses Major Threat to Environment, Health

n employee arranges discarded computers at a newly opened electronic waste recycling factory in Wuhan, Hubei province. Stringer/ REUTERS

While the fact that 95.5 million Americans said they would shop on Black Friday is good news for retailers, it is a far less positive figure for the environment. Cheap electronics are one of the biggest draws for shoppers on the day (and indeed the rest of the year), but these immediate savings hide the ultimate collective cost - old electronics (e-waste) that are improperly disposed of can result in environmental pollution with its attendant health risks, as well as data theft.

In 2012, the world amassed almost 49 million metric tons of e-waste, including everything from last generation cellphones and laptops to televisions and washing machines. The largest contributor, the United States, supplied nearly 66 pounds of e-waste per person that year. And the trend is only growing. One study, conducted by a United Nations partner organization, projects that this number will rise to 65.4 million metric tons by 2017. As the amount of e-waste dramatically increases, solutions for proper disposal have lagged considerably behind.

Some old electronics wind up collecting dust in homes as consumers are either unsure of what to do with their outdated devices, or fear for the security of their data. Others hand their aged gadgets to family members or friends.

But a great deal of e-waste ultimately winds up in landfills, meaning the toxic materials they contain, such as lead, arsenic, beryllium and mercury, often end up leaking into the environment, poisoning ecosystems and harming not only humans but animals and plants too. Improper disposal also poses a risk to data security as any information that has not been wiped from a device can usually be extracted with ease.

E-waste recyclers can be seen to be a responsible response to this problem. Though there has yet to be a centralized response by the federal government to the growing e-waste issue, many of these recyclers have opted to follow self-imposed certification systems that hold them accountable for environmental and data safety.

But awareness of the e-waste issue is finally growing. John Shegerian, CEO and co-founder of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) - the largest e-waste recycling company in the US - told Newsweek that when his company launched in April of 2005, ERI recycled 10,000 pounds of e-waste its first month. Last month, Shegerian says ERI recycled nearly 25 million pounds.

ERI has clients ranging from cities and corporations, to New York City apartment buildings. Once the e-waste enters their facility, each item is barcoded and tracked. Customers can then watch the progress of their device's recycling online. "Transparency is key to responsible recycling," Shegerian says.

ERI either recycles the parts, or refurbishes the device for reuse according to the contract created with the customer. In the case of recycling, the company separates the different materials and throws the electronic carcass into an industrial shredder. ERI then sells the broken down materials, and pays a responsible smelter to take the glass. If a device is being prepared for reuse, ERI cleans and fixes the item, wipes the data, and then repackages and resells it.

So far, 25 states have passed legislation calling for e-waste recycling, with several more states in the process. But until the problem is dealt with on a national scale, it will continue to flourish.