Digital Signals E-Waste: Not In My Backyard

by Yee Huang

January 30, 2009

When analog signals for broadcast television end on February 17, one problem of the digital signal switch for televisions will remain: what to do with older televisions that are incompatible with digital signals.  While the federal government is providing rebates to purchasers of converter boxes for older televisions, the boxes are simply a stopgap measure and do not replicate digital-quality television.  For example, because of the difference in image resolution, the view for a 17-inch television with an analog signal appears as a truncated 15-inch view on the same television with a digital signal.  It’s not difficult to imagine that these televisions will eventually be replaced, ending up in domestic landfills or foreign processing centers. 

Between 2003 and 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 15 to 20 per cent of electronic products were recycled, and the remaining 80 to 85 per cent of products were disposed of, largely in landfills.  It’s nice to imagine that Wall-E, the endearing trash-compactor from Pixar’s movie, is happily and busily scooping up these old electronics, squishing them into neat cubes far from any human contact.  The reality is far less pleasant.  The majority of recycled products are shipped overseas, often to developing countries with few facilities and fewer regulations to process the toxic components of used electronic equipment.  As more states ban disposal of electronic waste in landfills, more of this waste is likely to be shipped abroad.

Large electronics, such as older televisions and computer monitors, operate using cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) that can contain up to four pounds of lead as well as other heavy metals.  Exposure to lead causes delayed neurological development in children and other adverse health impacts in adults, including elevated blood pressure, kidney disease, and cerebra-vascular disease.  As a result, the disposal and recycling of CRT devices are regulated as hazardous waste by the EPA.  A recycling company is required to notify the EPA of its intent to export CRT devices for reuse or repair, and it must get consent from the receiving country. 

Recycling used electronics can recover gold and other metals with far less destruction than mining.  However, for many domestic companies, exporting electronic waste for processing is more profitable than recycling and recovering the metal components themselves.  The recycling process is labor-intensive and requires multi-million-dollar equipment to separate components and metals.  Moreover, domestic companies incur additional costs for handling and disposing of toxic waste.  Reselling electronics for export, however, is profitable and shifts the burden of disposal to the importing country. 

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal provides additional, international regulations for the disposal of CRTs.  Similar to the EPA rule, the Convention requires notice to and consent from transit and importing countries prior to export.  Exported waste much be accompanied by a “movement document” that describes the contents and disposal requirements.  Although nearly all industrialized countries have ratified the Convention, the United States has not.  However, the United States is bound by decisions of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which has harmonized its rules with the Basel Convention. 

The United Nations Environment Program has surveyed importing countries, including China, India, and other Asian countries.  These surveys, summarized in a Governmental Accountability Office report, reveal that importing countries lack the ability to safely disassemble or recycle exported hazardous waste.  Frequently, workers simply disassemble the electronics by hand in informal backyard workshops.  Common practices include open-air burning and open acid baths to recover copper and other metals.  Careless disposal of the by-products, whether incinerated toxic ash or spent acid waste, has caused increased health problems for local communities.  In Guiyu, China, a medical study revealed that lead levels in local children were 50 percent higher than the limit set by the Centers for Disease Control and 50 percent higher than lead levels in children from an adjacent village where electronics were not disassembled.

The GAO report concluded that the EPA rule for CRT disposal has been only loosely enforced, with little likelihood of increased future enforcement.  In addition, the report noted that unscrupulous companies easily evade the notice and consent requirements. 

Just as the signal for television is shifting from analog to digital, so too should the United States’s approach to disposing of electronic waste, domestically and abroad.  Part of the Basel Convention’s approach is to process hazardous waste closer to where it is produced or used.  While exporting electronic waste relieves the domestic burden of dealing with toxic waste and comports with the not-in-my-backyard mentality, the overarching economic and ecological connections suggest that we all live in a common backyard. 

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