Electronic Waste: Where Does It Go and What Happens To It?

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Many people are aware of the disastrous effects that tossing old electronics in the garbage can have on the environment and take special care to dispose of these products properly. While most recycling centers will make sure that your devices are dismantled and reused, a recent NPR story shows us that companies might not be as honest about what they are doing with your old electronics. More often than not these items are shipped outside the US, moving the toxic waste dump from our shores to developing countries, according to Basel Action Network executive director Jim Puckett. The non-profit organization focuses on protecting the environment from dangerous waste.

“The dirty little secret is that when you take [your electronic waste] to a recycler, instead of throwing it in a trashcan, about 80 percent of that material, very quickly, finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan — where very dirty things happen to it,” Puckett said to NPR.

While recyclers do make money selling metal scraps, such as gold and liquid solder, it is cheaper to have the hard labor of pulling apart and melting down pieces done outside the country even if that means the useless scraps and other hazardous materials will liter that area. 60 Minutes went to one of these illegal electronics stripping shops in Guiyu, China (pictured above) in 2008, which employed workers for $8 a day. Despite the fumes that made them cough and other health hazards, the workers said they opted to work at recycling factories because it was one of the only jobs in this region that paid a living wage.

The environmental damage on the area because of all the toxic materials has left a permanent scar. Scientists who have examined Guiyu have determined that because of the waste, the location has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. Pregnant women are six times more likely to suffer a miscarriage, and seven out of ten kids have too much lead in their blood. Many of the devices broken down in the town came from other countries including the US, who in 2008 according to Natural Resources Defense Council Allen Hershkowitz tossed out 130,000 computers each day and dispose of over 100 million cell phones each year.

The problem is still ongoing. A few weeks ago in the South China Morning Post, a story said that a new law effective January 1, 2011 forcing Chinese recycling firms to turn away imported electronic waste has created a stockpile of toxic materials in Hong Kong. Since overseas countries still ship old devices to the region to be stripped for minerals, which are then resold by traders, the poisonous junk is stuck in the country with no way to sell or dispose of it because local businesses fear the law. “I don’t know what to do with [the electronic waste]. I’m looking for recyclers who know how to treat them,” an anonymous recycler said to the newspaper. “But I know many others are having the same problem. It’s a problem for Hong Kong.”

Basel Action Network suggests taking an extra step and using one of the e-Stewards, certified recyclers that do not ship their electronic waste to be disposed of in different countries. It may narrow down the choices of where you can dump your old computer or cell phone, but the extra effort is worth it.

More on TIME.com:

Too Many Gadgets? EcoSquid Scours Multiple Trade-In Sites

Is Your Mobile Device or Laptop Funding Conflict Mineral Wars?

How To: Recycle Your Old Gadgets