Why Recycling Your Cell Phone Might Be Doing More Harm Than Good

Trying to live green means recycling, and many of us are great at ensuring that each and every wrapper, can, and piece of paper makes its way into the proper bin. But what about all of those electronics that we’re so fond of?

Small electronics like cell phones and tablets are difficult to take apart and as a result end up being shredded, along with any potentially toxic elements that are often present like lead and mercury, then separated and scavenged for usable parts. What can’t be reused is then shipped as e-waste. Larger items like TVs and computers can also be recycled but contain times like the fluorescent tubes that may contain magnesium, and are often shipped off without being touched to countries like Hong Kong and China for recycling.

It’s a problem that’s only going to keep growing as the electronics we rely on such as cell phones, tablets, laptops, and TVs are constantly having their technology updated and as a society we tend to replace our electronics every couple of years. That’s meant that there’s a preponderance of electronics filling up landfills, something that in countries like Australia is actually banned. There are also several options for recycling your electronics, like drop off points provided by the Department of the Environment, and “Green” programs provided through big box stores and technology suppliers like Apple, who make tablets and phones that are notoriously hard to recycle.

American based group Basel Action Network (BAN) is a an organization that dedicates itself to eliminating toxic trade. According to BAN when small electronics are recycled their small components require them to be shredded then separated and some parts are then scavenged to be repurposed. The process is time-consuming, expensive, and according to experts, entirely unsustainable, plus a lot of the end product is highly contaminated.

Electronics can contain a host of toxic materials such as mercury and lead, both of which can be harmful not only to the environment but people as well. And these dead electronics are quickly becoming the world’s largest growing source of waste.

BAN partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a two year study to investigate how far recycled technology would travel. They placed 200 geolocating tracking devices inside old electronics like computers, printers, and TVs and dropped them off at recycling donation centres and electronic take back programs across the United States.

The study found that eventually almost a third of the trackers made their ways overseas in places like China, Thailand, Mexico, Canada, and Hong Kong. Sometimes the waste is disposed of properly, but often they’re ending up in places that are disposing of the waste illegally, creating a market for smuggled e-waste.

It was a major problem in China, but a crackdown by the Chinese government as part of a border control operation called Green Fence has stopped many electronics from crossing the border. Now the operations have simply moved to parts of Hong Kong, where BAN researchers followed a geotagged computer. There they found workers smashing mercury filled fluorescent tubes from TV’s, without any protection, exposing workers and the environment to toxic mercury exposure.

Almost 25 years ago the Basel Convention was ratified by nearly every developed nation to ensure that developed countries could not dump hazardous waste on poorer nations but to this date only the United States hasn’t signed the treaty, and it’s mostly their e-waste that’s filling up toxifiying other nations lands and their people.

While many countries like Australia have signed the Basel Convention and won’t export whole TVs or computers they can export items like crushed glass and plastic that may be contaminated after being shredded along with other components.

So what can you do to stay green when you’re done with your electronics? Unfortunately we don’t have much of an answer for you as laws are still unclear and it’s still so easy for recyclers to dump devices or ship them to undeveloped countries. We suggest skipping recycling if your device still works and donating it instead. But if your device is completely good, and no use to donate for parts, (you can always see if a repair store will pay you or take as a donation for the parts), then do your research before dropping your device off somewhere.