Charred circuit boards, plumes of black smoke, and toxic water laden with heavy metals. The very real but unseen cost of the electronic waste produced by our global economy. As the world becomes more connected, our production of this waste is only growing with time.

Over 1.5 billion smartphones were sold in 2017, this staggering figure means almost the same number of smartphones were retired. Of those, it’s safe to say the majority did not make it through proper recycling chains

In 2009, the EPA recorded 141 million mobile phones being discarded, with just 12 million collected for recycling. Now that the figures are into the billions, the implications are sobering.

Through both illegal and some legitimate channels, industrialized nations end up exporting large amounts of their electronic waste to developing nations. This effectively turns them into the industrialized world’s dumping grounds for tens of millions of tons of electronic waste each year.

Were they simple biodegradable exports, this wouldn’t be cause for so much concern; but discarded smartphones and electronic waste are complex in their design and materials used. As such, this dumping has created an environmental and humanitarian crisis for those less developed countries.

Social and economic factors create incentives for these poorer countries to take on electronic waste, but they are rarely equipped to recycle these materials properly.

Local populations often improvise their own extraction methods without proper safety equipment. The most common practice is burning items to retrieve the precious metals found in these waste products; but the health hazards are literally killing those who scavenge to feed their families.

Simply put, the economic incentive is too great for poorer families and the health risks endured to their end.

International Regulatory Efforts on Electronic Waste

Despite efforts from regulatory bodies internationally, there have not been globally adopted standards to manage the export of electronic waste effectively and ethically.

This doesn’t mean a blind eye has been completely trained on this issue, the Basel Convention was passed in 1989. It was the first international law meant to regulate hazardous waste exports from industrialized nations.

In the near thirty years since its creation, 183 countries have ratified the U.N.-backed accord, but the United States to this date has not. As the world’s largest producer of electronic waste, this is the unfortunate but stark reality when it comes to unified electronic waste agreements between nations. The United States has adopted OECD Multilateral Waste trade standards but the lack of international cooperation on other pieces of electronic waste legislation has been cause for concern.

Many industrialized nations under the Basel Ban have taken steps to require that manufacturers provide take-back programs for the electronic products they produce. These nations include Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and 27 members of the European Union among their ranks.

Some E.U. directives have gone one step further requiring that manufacturers take back products at the end of their life cycles in addition to furnishing the cost of refurbishing and recycling all electronic products they’ve produced since 2005. Europe has also banned several toxic substances related to electronics manufacturing in an effort to stem some of the toxic pollution at its source.

The country of Australia has implemented a national recycling program called MobileMuster which saw over a 590,000 devices and 1.5 million smartphone batteries recycled in 2006 alone. A byproduct of the program’s success was simply raising awareness among citizens that recycling mobile devices was even an option.

Despite these hard won efforts, 2014 figures show only four billion out of the world’s population are covered by electronic waste legislation. The speed of technological progress, coupled with a lack of agreement on a global initiative has left things somewhat hamstrung.

Similarly to how traditional recycling efforts have gone for waste products outside of electronic waste, the process is patchy and imperfect. The initiatives one takes depend largely on the individual’s sense of responsibility.

The Rise of “Urban Mining” in Underdeveloped Countries

Outside of the ethical and moral considerations, economic incentives exist for recycling electronic waste. For developed nations who are equipped to handle the processing, the most sensical reason for recycling electronic waste is when the cost to recycle is less than the cost of producing materials from scratch.

With the volume of electronic waste being exported each year, we are now seeing “urban mining” become an economically viable means of reclaiming metals like gold. This term refers to the process of extracting precious metals through recycling massive amounts of electronic waste.

Typically, gold concentration is roughly .5 grams for each tonne of raw dirt. Meaning, if you were to take an excavator to your backyard and dig out a tonne of dirt, you’d have a chance to find .5 grams of gold

In a gold mine you’d find even higher concentrations where each tonne would yield up to six grams of gold (about 12 times higher concentration than your backyard).

Now if instead of using those raw materials you extracted the gold from one tonne of smartphones, you’d get almost 350 grams of gold (an almost 60 fold increase). This concentration almost nullifies the typical yield from the raw materials processed out of a gold mine, hence the term “urban mining.”

Metals like copper, aluminum, silver, lithium, palladium, cobalt and many more are some of the precious elements sought after in electronic waste. Recent figures from the EPA estimated that by recycling just one million smartphones they would be able to extract 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium. Not a bad haul given the fact that globally, over a hundred million phones are disposed of per month

It’s estimated that annually we throw away as much as 11 percent of the total gold mined in the world right into the trash. With 2500 tonnes, or 5,000,000 lbs of gold being the average produced in a given year, that’s over 550,000 lbs of gold going into landfills yearly. If you really want to get down to the dollars and cents, at $1,000 per ounce, that’s about $8.8 million dollars of shiny garbage each year from the gold alone.

The Human Cost of Electronic Waste Dumping

The unfortunate reality is tonnes of electronics containing precious metals in poor countries is an invitation for scavenging and DIY material extraction. Those who work the electronic waste graveyards can be younger than ten years old, and often succumb to health related issues before reaching thirty.

Mishandled electronic waste brings with it a host of environmental factors like ozone depletion, negative impacts on ecosystems, greenhouse gas emissions and more. The cost is twofold when the human suffering is accounted for due to industrialized nations dumping their electronic waste.

Ground zero for the human cost of these international electronic waste exports is Agbogbloshie, a commercial district near Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Here electronic waste is salvaged to recover metals like steel, aluminum, and copper.

Scrap is burned to melt plastic and reveal the metal innards which are then collected and sold to local brokers. Circuit boards and casings contain brominated flame retardants which create noxious and dangerous fumes when burned at low temperatures.

Without proper safety equipment, workers are exposed to the harsh chemicals and toxic elements. Unbeknownst to many who are salvaging these materials, electronic waste contains mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic and flame retardants among many other harmful substances.

Earned wages for these Ghanaian workers can be as low as as £1.90 a day depending on how productive their searches are. The health effects are devastating and include severe respiratory and organ damage from inhalation of airborne byproducts. For pregnant mothers working these sites, exposure to these chemicals can cause birth defects, premature births, low birthweight and even fetal loss.

Unsafe recycling practices leave women and children especially vulnerable without the education or equipment to help minimize their exposure. And for many in this district, the only viable option for income is to work as a “burner boy” collecting and burning wiring to recover copper salvage. Young men and women are sacrificing their health to provide for their families, often reporting chronic symptoms like chest pain, fever and coughing out black phlegm.

The extreme levels of environmental contamination compound the health issues due to the degradation of water, air, and soil quality. There are many unknowns regarding the complex mixtures of toxic substances these people are being exposed to.

Adverse effects in early life are increasing as the phenomenon of urban mining becomes more and more pervasive. Children in these countries can be exposed simply by living in the adjacent area or attending a school close to the dumps. One doesn’t have to participate in salvaging materials directly to be directly affected by it. Africa isn’t the only country being affected either, sub districts within China are seeing negative impacts from electronic waste exports, the city of Guiyu being a prime example of this.

Criminal Rings Drive Billions in International E-Waste Exports

Transnational criminal gangs are responsible for billions of dollars of electronic waste products being smuggled into West Africa. Asian countries are also seeing a marked increase in these illicit goods.

International export laws contain serious gaps related to the electronic waste supply chain, and have lent themselves toward illegal trade arrangements.

Smuggling networks classify their cargo as “second-hand goods” allowing for the materials to be smuggled by sea and rail. Loose regulations around waste removal also encourage exploitation by those who pretend to dump waste only to take it for the purposes of unsafe recycling.

Compounding this issue are industrialized nations such as the US, Europe, and Japan trade to send their electronic waste to developing countries which have lax regulations around waste removal.

The Mixed Accountability and Culpability of Large Electronics Manufacturers

A term that has received a lot of attention over the last few years is “Planned Obsolescence.” This refers to products inherently designed with flaws so that their replacement will be mandatory after a certain period of time. An unscrupulous practice, and one that will only serve to exacerbate the issue of electronic waste exports.

Thanks to legislation around corporate handling of electronic waste, companies like Samsung, Apple, Amazon and Best Buy have been mandated to create incentives for past customers to return old devices.

This as a small measure against the coming wave of electronic waste exports in years to come, but better than zero accountability on the part of those designing and building these devices.

With this in mind, until large economic incentives exist for recycling over mining new materials, progress will be slowed.

A more sustainable approach is for the industry to shift towards designs with more reusability. But given the incentives in place for corporations to keep doing “business as usual,” it’s hard to say how much will change in the coming years.

With this in mind, there are smartphone recycling companies in the private sector working to combat this issue.

Recycling Has Utility and Economic Incentives

Under proper conditions most of the materials used to create smartphones can be deconstructed and recovered to create new products:

  • Plastics can be repurposed into electronics components, packaging, or even outdoor furniture.
  • Metals have wide-ranging reuse applications in everything from jewelry to automotive manufacturing.
  • And smartphone batteries which are no longer usable can be recycled to create new rechargeable battery products.

Recycling a single mobile phone saves enough energy to power a laptop for over 40 hours, so it’s not hard to picture the impact of recycling a billion smartphones (seeing as 1.5 billion are sold each year).

There are also incentives at the user level to recycle your phone. Payouts from smartphone recycling companies can net you anywhere between £50 and £600 plus depending on the device and its condition. If you’re upgrading, it pays to dispose of your device properly (literally) rather than binning it or placing it in a drawer to be forgotten.

More than the financial benefits, you’ll be a part of the solution regarding electronic waste and the lives affected by its creation. Recycling centers create jobs, reduce pollution, and offer a buoy in the storm to a far reaching issue which needs all the help it can get.

Phone owners are sitting on millions of dollars in unrecycled technology. So if you have a phone tucked away somewhere, now might be the time to recycle it to earn some extra cash and help stem the tide against exploited countries and their citizens.

This is a multifaceted issue which won’t be solved overnight, but we can all do our part starting with our choice to recycle old technology.