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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Preventing an electronic wasteland

Discarded consumer electronic devices on a bed of shredded E-waste.
[Image © Science/AAAS]

The toxic waste created from discarded electronic devices, like old cell phones and mp3 players, can be very harmful to people and to the environment—and the United States need to take action now in order to prevent the problem from getting out of hand, researchers say. In a Policy Forum, Oladele Ogunseitan and colleagues from the University of California estimate that over 1.36 million metric tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, exists in the United States alone—but they also say that most Americans are not aware of the proper ways to recycle this e-waste.

A sea of television housings, cathode ray tubes, computers, monitors, and other imported electronic waste not salable at the Alaba Market in Lagos, Nigeria, is dumped here in a nearby swamp.
[Image © Basel Action Network]

In regions of the world where e-waste is dumped improperly, people and animals often live with high levels of toxins, such as lead, in their blood. To make matters worse, the use of small electronic devices has grown tremendously over the years, and e-waste has become the fastest growing part of the solid-waste stream.

These authors say that e-waste is a serious problem because throughout the entire life cycle of electronic products—from the mining of raw materials to the toxic emissions during their manufacturing and their eventual disposal into the environment—waste is produced.

Calling for action, the authors highlight laws and policies set forth by European regulators that aim to manage this toxic e-waste, and they also outline possible U.S. laws that would promote education, recycling, and research into "green" alternative materials for use in electronic products in the future.


This research appears in the 30 October issue of Science.