A Global Approach to Managing the Holidays’ Hottest Gadgets

Discarded televisions being weighed before recycling in Taiwan

By Panah Bhalla

As we begin our holiday shopping this year, it is hard not to notice how important electric and electronic devices have become in our everyday lives. But with their welcomed constant upgrades, we have to figure out what to do with these products when they stop working or become outdated “e-waste”. As was mentioned by a previous blogger, electronic devices can contain valuable resources such as copper, gold, and silver. But they can also contain harmful materials such as lead and mercury that can pollute the environment and affect human health. A study I read recently estimated that e-waste could increase by 700% over the next 15 years. This growth presents a particular risk for developing countries, where impoverished communities dismantle old appliances and electronics by hand and without adequate safety precautions in order to make money from the scrap metal inside. In addition to the supply of old devices from their own countries, the growing stream of e-waste that ends up in developing nations around the world includes items that were purchased, used, and disposed of in countries like the United States.

Last month I participated in a workshop in Taiwan on how to manage e-waste in an environmentally sound manner. I joined representatives from 13 countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Nigeria, Ghana, El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago. The bulk of the workshop focused on the recycling system in Taiwan, where fees from producers and importers of new electronics are used to subsidize the safe recycling of e-waste. From the outset, participants asked detailed questions, wanting to know all the intricacies of the fee-based system.

As I watched the discussions unfold, I realized that this workshop was a perfect example of why the President’s National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship charged EPA to work with developing countries on safe e-waste management. At this workshop, we were all working towards the common goal of reducing threats to health and the environment while maintaining economic opportunities for individuals involved in recycling. Nobody had all of the answers, but everybody was learning from each other and identifying new strategies they could implement back home. At the end of the week, we decided to create a formal network to help us share our experiences on an ongoing basis. It is clear that the pollution and health threats associated with e-waste recycling are significant, but by taking a collaborative international approach like this, we all stand to benefit. As we shop for family and friends this holiday season, we can feel confident that the global community is working together to address the challenge of recycling these gadgets safely.

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About the author: Panah Bhalla works in the Office of International and Tribal Affairs as the lead on e-waste issues for the Asia-Pacific and Latin American/Caribbean regions. She holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Management and lives in Washington, D.C.