Some of us may have taken part in some sort of electronics recycling programs, in which we drop some unwanted electronic devices wishing they would get reused again. It is true that the precious metals deposited on the boards, tubes and circuits are very valuable, but the retrieval process is costly. Oftentimes real, environmentally sustainable recycling can only be profitable if the donors are charged a fee to recycle their stuff. Then what’s in the deal for those who recycle our electronics waste for free?
The answer is simple: outsource to cheaper alternatives.
In US, an NGO called BAN (Basel Action Network) worked with MIT Senseable City Lab to track the recycled e-waste across the world. They attached GPS trackers on 200 devices, including printers, LCD and CRT monitors to see how their fates end after dropped at the recycling stations. The result? You can see the visualization here: http://senseable.mit.edu/monitour-app/
At these countries, the wastes are usually broken down and decomposed in ways harmful to the environment and the workers. This illegal export violates Basel Convention which was designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations. The biggest offenders are Hong Kong and China. Because of the cheap labour and poor legal enforcement, the companies profit by exploiting the goodwill of donors and the living environment of the earth.
So, take a closer look next time when you intend to recycle your smartphones or laptops. Or better, reduce or reuse the devices and extend the lifespan of your once-beloved gadgets.