Toys and gadgets become toxic junk, thanks to the circuit-bored.

Charlie, a trader hooked on the eBay auction site, is offering to sell a "Roboraptor, unwanted gift used once." He posts a heavily discounted asking price, about one-third the cost of this hit robotic toy during last December's pre-Christmas rush. Roboraptor's predecessors-Robosapien, Robosapien V2, and RoboPet, all released in 2003 and 2004-make up the rest of the over 100 items up for bid to second-hand robot enthusiasts.

This sort of transaction is completed countless times a year. Robotic toys are the latest trend in a huge toy market worth $31.8 billion in the United States alone in 2005, according to the research firm NPD Group. The toy generations breed and spread rapidly-and go "extinct" fast, too. About a million Roboraptors were produced last summer in Dongguang, China, marketed by Wowwee Toys in Hong Kong, and shipped all over the world by early fall. This year Roboreptile will be the new Wowwee wonder, and will surpass its unathletic ancestors by being able to hop, jump, roar, bite, and even snatch. Marketed at children and young males, the robot series is just one line in a huge electronic toy manufacturing sector that encompasses electronic games consoles, gadgets, and action figures. Tech-savvy children, in their tens or hundreds of millions, will quickly tire of them, but not of e-toys in general. And in a year or two they will move on to cellphones, iPods, desk- and laptop computers, personal digital assistants, and a variety of electronic novelties.

Once electronic items become outdated or their owners grow tired of their tricks (or lack of them), what happens to the horde of animatrons and gadgets?

A staggering quantity of them simply becomes junk. The volume of electronic products is vast and waste rates are increasing. The U.S. National Safety Council forecast in 1999 that 100 million computers and monitors would become obsolete by 2003, three times as many as in 1997. Three years ago, the International Association of Electronics Recyclers reported that approximately 20 million televisions become obsolete each year in the United States. In a 2001 memorandum on its Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, the European Commission stated that "in 1998, 6 million tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment were generated (4 percent of the municipal waste stream). The volume of WEEE is expected to increase by at least 3-5 percent per annum. This means that in five years 16-28 percent more WEEE will be generated and in 12 years the amount will have doubled. The growth of WEEE is about three times higher than the growth of the average municipal waste."

Moreover, emerging markets are beginning to echo these patterns. K.S. Sudhakar of the Indian non-profit group Toxics Link says, "Consumption of electrical and electronic goods is growing exponentially in India. With the growing IT sector, increasing purchasing power of an average Indian citizen, the fall in electrical and electronic [item prices], government going in for computerization of its own set-ups, and penetration of electronics in rural markets, the consumption pattern is not set to plateau or fall in the near future." A survey carried out by IRG Systems South Asia estimated total e-waste in India at 146,180 metric tons a year based on selected tracer items, excluding WEEE imports. Mumbai currently tops the list of major cities with 11,017 tons of e-waste per year. This compares with an annual e-waste generation rate of 150,000 tons for London, according to the recycling firm London Remade.

The heart of most new electronic gadgets is a printed circuit board (PCB), which is ingenious but also toxic. This toxicity often spills out once the product is finished with. (Television and computer cathode ray tubes have also received considerable attention, but studies have shown that their contents do not leak as easily as the contents of PCBs.) The concern about WEEE is justified not only by the rate of its growth but also by the environmental burden created by its production, which greatly exceeds that of many other types of wastes.

Seth Heine, a cellphone expert, is particularly concerned about the addition to this polluted mountain that the booming cellphone industry creates. Old cellphones are typically stored (or abandoned) in people's desk drawers for a few years before being discarded. One of Heine's missions is to rescue them. It's a challenge: "Even if you make [recycling and re-use] free and easy, people don't respond," he says, pointing out that they see their old phones as a "valuable asset," having paid a lot for a small item with multiple functions, such as video recording or internet access.

But even though it is a very clever product, it ages quickly. Within a year or two of purchase, most cellphones are indeed essentially valueless. So Heine, who runs a cellphone recycling operation called CollectiveGood in Atlanta, Georgia, tries to capture those mobile phones before they can be thrown out. He reckons that around 130 million U.S. cellphones are "retired" each year and that 20 percent of these are trashed straightaway. Every month his organization collects 15,000 of them from all over the country and, unlike most mobile phone recycling companies, checks that they still work. He then ships 80 percent of them to Belgium, where they are re-exported to developing countries for reuse. The rest are stripped in CollectiveGood's reclamation plant.

Hand De-Crafted

On the other side of the world in Silampur, India, workers are tearing electronics apart with their bare hands, according to the activist group Basel Action Network (BAN), which monitors international traffic in hazardous wastes. The fate of great numbers of cellphones that leave U.S. ports without being checked for functionality is unknown. They may be falsely labeled as second-hand goods, and certainly many of them also fall into the hands of Indian scrap dealers. Excluded from the dedicated cellphone waste stream, they become mixed e-waste and are cannibalized for their precious metals and other content (much of it toxic), including antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc.

A complex skein of e-trade movements wraps the globe. Metals are shipped to firms in Asia that make components for electronics manufacturers, which export finished products to customers in the industrialized nations. A few years later, many of the products find their way back to Asia as junk. India, China, and Africa all receive large amounts of illegally imported computers, cellphones, and other castoff devices as mixed electronic waste, some of which is reused but most of which is dumped into a poisonous pile. "To put it in simple terms, it is smuggled," says K.S. Sudhakar. "We did trace such modes of imports happening under the name of ‘metal scrap' and ‘cable scrap,' which can be legally imported."

If not smuggled, it is imported as mixed electronic scrap, donations (which are exempt from duty), or as second-hand computers, which are permitted as imports if they are less than 10 years old. However, Sudhakar's organization counted around 1,620 metric tons of "surreptitiously" imported computer waste entering through the port of Chennai between July 2002 and January 2004. It also enters through Mumbai, Kandla, and Cochin. In China, several of the main ports receive waste arriving from Europe and the United States. In Hong Kong, 40, 28, and 2 shipments of waste TV cathode ray tubes were intercepted from North America, Asia/Oceania, and Europe respectively in 2004. India and China perform both as cradles for the electrical and electronics manufacturing industry (the Indian consumer electronics production sector grew by 10 percent between 2004 and 2005) and as graves for part of its waste.

Little is known about some continents' involvement. There have been few studies of imports of e-waste into South America, and in Africa most of the research has centered around imports into Nigeria and its port of Lagos, Africa's largest. There, 75 percent of waste electronics imported as second-hand products is found to be unworkable, according to BAN. In 2005, BAN witnessed 200 standard 12-meter shipping containers of e-waste arriving in Lagos each month. Most of the waste is dumped (where it can leach toxins into groundwater) or incinerated (which pollutes the air). In Nigeria, as in other countries handling dumped waste, cheap unprotected labor is used to do the dirty work.

Toxics Action

The chief problem of exporting electrical and electronic trash is the toxicity of components, which creates more environmental damage than the rubbish volumes, though they are unpleasant enough. Stopping the creation and spread of this toxicity requires breaking the link between consumption and export, and that is the aim of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, which entered into force in 1992. The treaty is supposed to reduce the transnational shipment of hazardous wastes, especially from developed to less developed countries. It is also meant to reduce the volume and toxicity of wastes and ensure that their management is both environmentally sound and carried out as near to the point of origin as possible. Although technically in effect, the Convention remains unratified by the United States, as does the later Basel Ban Amendment to prohibit (not simply reduce) exports of hazardous wastes from specific developed countries to developing ones. However, the European Union (EU) has adopted the Basel Ban in full.

Legal efforts such as these have prompted some electronics manufacturers to explore ways to make their products without hazardous components. In the United Kingdom, for instance, components producer Crawford, Hansford, and Kimber began developing safer alternatives in 2001 by altering their circuit boards to use lead-free formulations such as tin-silver. The company is unusual in acting well in advance of the forthcoming Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, due to be implemented in the European Union on July 1, 2006. The directive will minimize the use of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, and two types of brominated flame retardants in a wide range of electrical and electronic products from any geographic origin marketed after that date.

Among the developing nations, China plans to introduce its own version of an RoHS law, the first phase of which (to determine product marking requirements) will come into force in March 2007. Materials restrictions will follow later. South Korea is also planning an RoHS law.

Meanwhile, what about all those toxic products already in the pipeline? The introduction of "filters" at ports to pick out the hidden hazardous items in containers of mixed waste will help deal with products marketed before July 1. As noted, a great deal of non-functional rubbish is illegally exported as second-hand reusable goods. However, there are moves at the German environment ministry and other European institutions, mirroring similar pioneering steps in Australia, to empower customs inspectors to test functionality. These efforts are meant to remediate the loose and over-simplified definition of waste that bedevils much waste legislation. In Europe, the purpose is to ensure that the functionality test governs the distinction between waste and non-waste in waste shipment regulations. The lack of such a distinction at the moment hamstrings port inspectors. "Identifying which containers to check [for non-functioning products] is a big problem and nearly impossible," says Joachim Wuttke, an official with the German environment ministry. "Customs codes don't give an idea as to which containers include e-scrap in disguise. Officers have to use an intuitive feeling, based on experience." Currently, inspectors can only act if they happen to hit upon the right container and find smuggled rubbish rather than second-hand products. Wuttke has been pushing for action at both the European Union level and at the Basel Convention meetings to make this vision materialize and hopes that revised rules will be in force by the end of the year.

You Take That Back!

These problems could largely be avoided if eco-design considerations (building in energy efficiency, low- or no toxicity of components, easy dismantleability, etc.) were a regular feature of product planning. In Europe, several producers are campaigning intensively to stamp Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) into the heart of the WEEE Directive, which has passed through the EU parliamentary processes and is in various stages of implementation by national governments. EPR would ensure that producers took control over the destiny of their products and employed companies equipped to properly recycle the products at the end of their useful lives, thereby creating strong incentives for careful and eco-friendly design. However, EPR has been a difficult sell to date. Some observers blame that on individual governments, which often assign several departments to oversee WEEE legislation, as well as on differences between the European Commission and the national ministries. This struggle with the complexity of the law may delay a full EPR system by several years.

In Japan, recycling legislation is already enshrined in the 2001 Home Appliance Recycling Law, which applies to large kitchen appliances, televisions, and air conditioners. Its enactment has generated closed-feedback loops for individual brands. Japan also implemented a Computer Recycling Law in 2003; both laws are financed by customer fees. There is no e-waste takeback law embracing all electrical products, but a law promoting their recycling and ecodesign is in place. South Korea and Taiwan have e-waste EPR laws, and in Thailand the government produced a draft EPR law for electronics in late 2005. A draft WEEE law was drawn up in China in early 2005, but there has as yet been no further action.

In Europe as in the United States, Hewlett-Packard (HP) is one of the most vocal companies in favor of EPR, along with Electrolux, Samsung, Sony, LG Electronics, Nokia, and Motorola. They believe that eco-design would become a new ingredient in the competitiveness matrix if EPR were successfully introduced. (The nonprofit group Computer Takeback Campaign estimates that 315-600 million desktop and laptop computers in the United States alone will soon be obsolete.) HP has pledged to recycle 455 million kilograms of electronic products and supplies by 2007 and to introduce a substitution plan by the end of this year for hazardous components, which goes beyond current laws. It also operates a consumer and company takeback program for computers, peripherals, and print cartridges, available for any brand, at a cost to the customer of US$13-34 per item.

Closing this huge loop, which contains millions of tons of products, and preventing illegal e-waste exports will be a major challenge both for companies and legislators. "If you don't deal with environmental concerns and you don't pay for labor costs, you can extract a lot of value at the developing country end," explains Jim Puckett of BAN, referring to the commercial attractiveness of illegal waste export. He says that this is particularly true for the U.S. West Coast, because of the trade imbalance between the United States and China; a surplus of empty containers ends up in coastal ports, making shipment by sea much cheaper than recycling.

Computer Takeback Campaign, Basel Action Network, and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in California form a core of vocal players pressuring the U.S. federal government and the corporate sector to address the lack of recycling legislation in the United States, and monitoring the international waste trade and national pollution issues created by e-waste. Greenpeace is the most ubiquitous campaigner: it played an important role in pressing the European Union for legislation during the 1990s and has challenged multinational companies, with some success, to take EPR more seriously. The organization also liaises with local NGOs such as Toxics Link to create strategies in developing countries.

In the United States, pressure from these organizations and their peers has yielded recycling legislation in a handful of states. In March the governor of Washington state signed the most comprehensive producer responsibility bill enacted to date in the country. The bill requires electronics manufacturers to pay for the collection, transportation, and recycling of computers, monitors, and TVs from consumers, small business, schools, small governments, and charities in the state.

"This is a dramatic shift from what was previously a consumer and taxpayer financial burden," says Barbara Kyle of Computer Takeback Campaign. "The bottom line is that producers don't want to have to pay for the recycling." The only other states that have succeeded in imposing laws are California, Maine, and Maryland. E-waste bills are being debated in 19 other states as well as in New York City, but none of the bills passed so far includes recycling targets. At the federal level, no action is pending. "It's a mess in the U.S.A., but we're starting to make progress," remarks Jim Puckett. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in February awarded a $375,000 grant to the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Green Electronics Council to help corporate procurement officers find computers and peripherals meeting strict environmental criteria. Computer manufacturers register their products with the Council using the Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which grades equipment according to green criteria. Green procurement initiatives are growing elsewhere, too. In 2005, for instance, the Japanese Green Procurement Network, which has a strong electronics focus, took root in other countries and became an international organization, working with producers in emerging markets such as India.

Progress comes in fits and starts. Even in Europe, where legislation is now in place, it is feared that the WEEE Directive will simply push more waste overseas as some firms struggling to comply are tempted to employ unscrupulous subcontractors to dispose of end-of-life products in unapproved ways. In the meantime, the electronics sector continues to grow, as iPods supersede Walkmans, cellphones become more sophisticated, and the global consumer class expands. On the bright side, perhaps capture tools are getting better, too. Seth Heine, for example, reckons he can draw cellphones out of those desk drawers through an incentive system called RIPMobile, which allows owners to exchange old cellphones for certificates redeemable with a wide variety of retail partners. As for Charlie's robotic dinosaur, eBay itself not only can help it find a new home, it can inform Charlie about other options via its Rethink program, created in response to a BAN campaign.

Companies that advertised their sustainability efforts, even if only in pursuit of market share, could help educate a generation of young people into a clearer materials life-cycle consciousness-which would create support for legislative efforts to curb the destructive trade in e-waste. In the United States, where per capita consumption is the highest, a great deal of further action is needed to increase takeback participation and use of eco-design principles. Bill Sheehan of the Product Policy Institute, which develops product-focused environmental policies, says that "the change with the greatest potential for leveraging improvement in design and marketing of electronics will be the expansion of local government mandates (disposal bans) coupled with state government EPR requirements." That scenario, along with a real willingness on the part of global companies to embrace and communicate EPR, is still a long way off.


Elisabeth Jeffries is an environmental journalist and copywriter based in London, United Kingdom.