It’s trash pick-up day on my block and when I went to put some last minute items in the yellow bins at the curb I discovered that someone had cleaned up after their dog in the rain and tossed the soggy stinky mess into my front yard. That they used napkins from the deli at our neighborhood upscale market that features organic and locally sourced food only compounded my outrage, never mind that a garbage can was within easy reach. As I hosed down and bagged the offense, the phrases “Not in my backyard,” “Not in my front yard,” ran through my head. As did something Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network – a non-profit that tracks the world travels of hazardous waste – said when we were talking about electronic waste, “Humans have this funny idea that when you get rid of something it’s gone.”
Later in the morning a reporter writing a piece on e-waste called to ask what consumers should know about where electronics collected at recycling events are being sent. “Do people have to worry,” he asked, “about their used computers, TVs, and other equipment being exported to places where it will be handled under unsafe, environmentally damaging ways?” Yes, they do.
While there are any number of electronics recyclers who ensure that nothing they collect ends up in landfills, and that all materials are handled in socially and environmentally responsible ways, and many who’ve pledged not to export any equipment for processing lest it end up in rudimentary workshops, directly exposing workers and communities toxic hazards of heavy metals and degrading or burning plastics, there are still many recyclers whose practices are hard if not impossible to verify. And the e-waste continues to be sent to developing countries where it’s handled cheaply, often unsafely and where large quantities are often dumped in open landfills that are routinely burned to reduce volume.
Meanwhile, out of sight and out of mind does not mean out of our lives. The hazardous chemicals released when e-waste is burned or dumped travel. Released into the environment – into air and water – they can end up in the air we breathe and the food we eat. A lot subtler than the dog leavings chucked in my flowerbeds, but part of the same problem. That glop reminded me how much work we have to do, until it goes without saying that everything we use and throw away has consequences that affect someone’s life.Photo: Trash bins near the bus station in Shenzhen, China where you catch the bus to Hong Kong.