The Little That Holds A Lot

How do I share about the hidden dangers of electronic waste? I find it hard to stare directly at this information. I’d like to start with a meditation from Reb Nachman of Breslov- his images from a hunchback beggar that depict a little that holds a lot. First, silence- the little that holds a lot. Next, let’s remember the life giving land- filled with fruit trees that become dwarfed by the bounty of fruit- the little that holds a lot. And only now do I turn to Reb Nachman’s nightmarish image of the mountain of excrement and waste- produced by one small man and his refuse- the little that holds a lot.

The mountain of electronic excrement we are producing is incomprehensible to me. Aldo Leopold’s words from his mid-century classic A Sand County Almanac ring in my ears- the price of an ecological education is to live in a world filled with wounds. Why is it so hard to remember that all is interconnected? That our right hand and left hand are connected in one system. We all know that our material waste, be it electronic or other, does not magically disappear because we take it to the curbside, drop it off at the dump or faithfully bring it to the recycling center. And yet I forget this simple ecological fact over and over again.

I type and share and connect- utilizing the benefits of the web, and at the same time, my computer is filled with toxins including mercury, lead (4-8 lbs if you have a large CRT monitor), hexavalent chromium, beryllium, cadmium, brominated fire retardants, PVC, plus assorted rare and common metals. Multiply this by every computer in the world, by every cell phone, digital camera, game boy, every gadget with a circuit board that’s been sold anywhere- ever. It is amazing how fast a little can become a lot.

Consider our little mobile phone and computer. When you add the 1.2 billion cell phones and 255 million pc’s sold in 2007, according to The United Nations Environmental Program E-report, “From E-waste to Recycling”, we mined 3% of the world’s silver, 3% of the world’s gold, and 13% of the worlds Palladium to meet this need. In addition, electronics make up for almost 80% of the world’s demand of indium (transparent conductive layers in LCD glass), over 80% of ruthenium (magnetic properties in hard disks, and 50% of the world's supply of antimony (flame retardants).

Effective recycling of these metals is crucial not only because they are finite, and the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are magnitudes higher in mining these metals versus reclaiming them for reuse, but also because some of these same metals are used in other industries- for instance, currently solar panels are also made with indium, and fuel cells are made with ruthenium.

So how much of our electronics are recycled? The Electronic Take Back Coalition reports just under 20% world wide. Most electronics are still destined for landfills and incinerators. I wish I could say AT LEAST one out of five are recycled. However, our electronics recycling infrastructure is not yet developed enough to handle even this much flow. As a consequence, ewaste overflow is shipped to cities in China, Pakistan, India, and Ghana.

It is in these places where children and adults, men and women heat circuit boards over small flames, and stir them in buckets of acid to reclaim what they can. They tend large fires of electrical wires to burn the plastic coating and collect the copper. All the rest is burned outside the city- the ash snowing down on their farm fields and homes. The acid is dumped into the local streams. Investigative reporters have been documenting the work life in these “recycling” operations for over a decade. See video below.

I write this to expand our imaginations- mine included. I find this larger life cycle of our electronic products is so easily denied. Whether you are an entrepreneur, educator or activist; a politician, lawyer or scientist, there is work to do all along the cycle from production to resurrection of the assumed dead appliances. Like Reb Nachman’s hunchback beggar, whose little shoulders could actually shoulder and bear great good in the world, may our small actions today grow into great impacts in the coming years.

I’ll leave you today with news from the European Union, and a collection of links for organizations working on these issues. Next blog we’ll explore new green electronics products (and the green chemistry movement that supports it).

I look forward to the continuing conversation. Maggid David.

The European Union became the international leader in reducing e-waste impacts by passing (over a decade ago) the Restriction on Hazardous Substance (Rohs) directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. Rohs outlaws any products that use the most dangerous of materials including lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and the brominated fire retardants. (Yes, this means the electrical gadgets we produce here in the United States can not be sold in the EU).

WEEE mandates the manufacturers to pay for the full recycling of their products. Following the European Union’s lead, China, Norway, Turkey and a few other countries are implementing Rohs based laws. Here in the US, only CA has put in place a similar law to Rohs.


Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition:

Basel Action Network:

CEH: Center for Environmental Health:

E-Stewards: The Globally Responsible way to recycle your electronics:

Electronic Take Back Coalition:

White Papers:

Electronics Take Back Coalition Fact Sheet:

United Nations Environment Program: Recycling- from Ewaste to Resources.

Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics:

Other Ewaste Investigations:

60 minutes:

BBC News Video:

2 Replies to "The Little That Holds A Lot"

  • Jesse Glickstein
    December 3, 2011 (1:59 pm)

    I couldn’t agree more. This is a huge problem, and I know that I play a role. As an example I have a smart phone and the battery keeps dying, so I have had to order new batteries. I am going to find a place to recycle this waste (I think Staples takes these items), but I know that many people are not aware in the same they are with plastics and newspapers that are collected curbside, that recycling for these electronics is available, and that the price for not safely recycling them is probably much greater than throwing a newspaper of soda can away in the trash.

  • Jesse Glickstein
    December 19, 2011 (8:13 am)

    An article from today about limitations in landfills for e waste

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