Do you know where your electronic waste is going?

Lee, D., Offenhuber, D., Duarte, F., Biderman, A., and Ratti, C. 2018. Monitour: Tracking global routes of electronic waste. Waste Management72, 362-370.

The rise of electronic waste and its hazards

The fast-paced growth of technology has given us incredible devices that make our lives easier and more enjoyable, but at the cost of generating vast amounts of electronic waste when these objects become out of date. Electronic waste, also known as e-waste, doesn’t include just our much beloved TVs, computers, and cellphones, but includes any electronic device. The volume of e-waste only continues to grow each year as more countries produce greater quantities. It is estimated that 50 million tons of e-waste will be globally generated in 2018 alone. These electronics commonly contain toxic and hazardous materials, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals that require proper disposal so that they do not harm the environment or human health. When disposed of in landfills these materials can leach out of e-waste into the soil and groundwater. Luckily, there are ways to properly dispose of these items and e-waste can be recycled to extract the heavy metals within them for use in other objects. However, due to a lack of proper disposal of these items on a large scale and the sheer volume generated, e-waste is a growing global concern.

How is electronic waste currently handled?

Currently regulations vary for how to handle e-waste within the United States as well as globally among countries. Because of this fact some countries take on greater risks of recycling hazardous e-waste than others, commonly with e-waste flowing from high to low income countries. In countries such as China and India, which produce the majority of the world’s electronics, there are secondary markets for the discarded electronics and thus they have taken in the majority of e-waste. But because of a lack of regulations the working conditions for refurbishing devices for resale or extracting any valuable materials from these electronics are often not safe for human health or the environment. To combat this problem 184 countries signed the Basel Convention in 1989 to control the movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal, with countries banning the export and import of unauthorized e-waste. While beneficial in curbing the flow of e-waste from high to low income countries, export still occurs and most often the export of e-waste is illegal trade to these countries.

Monitour: Using GPS to detect and track e-waste mismanagement

While the export and import of e-waste is researched and able to be monitored, it is difficult to collect global data on illegal e-waste movement. To obtain information on the path of export and import of illegal e-waste streams researchers used GPS to track e-waste in a both a pilot project and a larger scale project called, Monitour: E-trash Transparency Project. For privacy reasons, individuals involved in trafficking of any devices were not identified and waste objects were tracked directly rather than people since the aim of the study was to quantify this behavior for broader implications rather than trying to prosecute individuals involved.

The researchers began the project by embedding 17 cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, simplified here to computer monitors, with GPS sensors that were then dropped off at 15 e-waste collection businesses in Southern California. Six were able to be tracked to Asia. Two of the monitors had been deployed at California recycling businesses that are approved as e-waste collectors. Expanding on this work, the researchers then worked with Basel Action Network (BAN) to track the paths of 205 e-waste items, including 76 computer monitors, 72 LCD monitors, and 57 printers. In comparison to the 17 initial monitors, these items were dropped off at recycling businesses and charities around the country. Of these items, 69 traveled to other countries with the majority shipped to Asia, especially Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. Some items were surprisingly tracked to Pakistan and Thailand, as well as other emerging destinations of e-waste. The 69 items traveled on average 2,584 miles over an average span of 98 days. Additionally, they found that of the exported items LCDs were more likely to be exported than printers followed by computer monitors. Of the computer monitors exported, none of the 13 companies where the tracked items were left are listed among the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) approved exporters. The researchers also found through on the ground investigations that the final destinations these items ended up do not have safe working conditions for extracting the valuable materials.

A screenshot of the interactive project map showing the paths of 69 of the 205 deployed e-waste devices that were trafficked overseas from the United States. These paths were tracked using GPS and provide insight into previously unknown international e-waste routes. Source: Monitour: E-trash Transparency Project
How can this information be used?

This study highlights the use of using technology to track problematic e-waste trafficking networks that previously have been hidden. While this study may not be representative of the United States e-waste recycling program because the drop off sites were not randomly selected and results could vary with an even larger sample size, identifying these routes of e-waste trafficking has many benefits.

It is important to identify such e-waste trafficking networks since improper disposal of e-waste can result in harm to both the environment and human health. Export rates of e-waste in the US was estimated at roughly 10-16% from 2003-2005. Using the routes identified from this work can help better estimate how much hazardous e-waste is being internationally exported. In particular, it can help identify violations of local, national, and international laws. Identifying these international routes can help government regulators and certification programs to detect improper handling of e-waste and it can also be used to build trust between recycling partners so each can know items will be properly handled. Studies like this can help spread awareness of problems associated with e-waste trafficking that can then drive more awareness for best practices for properly disposing of e-waste.

To learn more about the specifics of the 205 e-waste items tracked visit the interactive site here:

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Katelyn Szura

I am currently completing my Masters in Biological and Environmental Science at the University of Rhode Island. My research focuses on examining how nitrogen inputs affect greenhouse gas fluxes from salt marshes, ultimately linking this work to how it impacts carbon storage in coastal wetlands. When not knee deep in marsh mud I enjoy running, hiking, sailing, and spending time with my pup, Bailey.

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