High Tech Waste and Recycling


Have you ever had a digital device that died? Even if you were responsible and took it to a recycling center, have you ever wondered what the recycling center does with dead digital devices? Sometimes devices such as phones, computers, laptops, tablets, plasma TVs, etc are just no longer wanted because their owners have upgraded. There are the options of selling and gifting your unwanted devices, but eventually those devices will either die or no longer be wanted by their new owners. Sooner or later all of these devices end up in trash heaps awaiting recycling. Most people think that by taking an unwanted or dead device to a recycling center that the recycling center actually recycles it by reworking it and then reselling it. This is true to an extent but what normally happens is the middle men, women, children, and country.

child in tech trash

To put it rather simplistically, the recycling centers in the US (as well as other developed countries) collect all of the unwanted or broken high tech devices. Then they are loaded onto ships and exported to third world countries where the devices are disassembled and end up in supposedly temporary trash heaps.

keyboard and mouse

digital gizmosPile of Waste - Electronic Waste Documentation (China: 2007)

Americans own over 2 billion pieces of high tech equipment and discard 5-7 million tons of electronic equipment each year. Add in the E-waste of other developed countries to all of this and this becomes a huge global issue.

Once this high tech trash reaches it’s destination it is sorted into like piles, disassembled, and then the recycling process begins–almost all  picked apart by hand (another reason all of your personal information should be wiped from any electronic device before it is discarded. Learn more about how to protect yourself by reading my post about Identity Theft).


In the majority of situations no safety equipment or precautions are used. Wires are stripped down by burning off the protective insulation.


Once the stripping of  electronics and burning processes begin, there are threats to human health and the environment because workers (who do not usually wear gloves or masks) are exposed to toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and various plastics to mention just a few. Not only is there danger of absorption through the skin, open wounds, cuts, etc but by burning off the wires, some of the toxins are airborne and may affect residents and animals in the area by forcing them to breathe in toxic fumes.


Once the component parts are broken down and items like copper and other metals are harvested then they can be sold to high tech companies who then will use the materials to make more electronic devices and are thus recycled.

Elizabeth Grossman does a great job of describing this issue in depth in her book High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health.

High Tech Trash

It seems that all of our electronic equipment such as computers, cell phones, smart devices, etc is safe for human use as long as these devices remain intact. The toxins, health threats, and environmental threats do not occur until the e-waste recycling process begins.

Europe is light years ahead of the US in terms of understanding the significant threats created through the recycling process of high tech devices. Europe regulates which materials are used in high tech devices to begin with and also monitors e-waste recycling. The US has not officially recognized the ongoing threats to human health and the environmental effects of toxins in high tech devices and takes no active involvement in the recycling process.

Another book I checked out was Recycling by Rebecca Stefoff.


This book (as you can see) is usually now cataloged as a children’s book, but when first cataloged in 1993 by the Fulton County Public Library, it was put into the adult nonfiction section. Recycling was really just beginning to be widely practiced during the 90’s so this book was quite topical for it’s time. Because it’s now at least 24 years old, I will only mention it briefly as part of my read through of the Fulton County Public Library.  I believe that the majority of Dewey Hop readers are familiar with the basic concept of recycling.

Do you think the US should in any way regulate the recycling of high tech devices? Were you aware of threats to the environment or human health during the recycling process of electronics?



13 thoughts on “High Tech Waste and Recycling

  1. I have read about the recycling process of electronics, etc., as you describe, and I totally think the industry (I use the word loosely) should be shaken up and remodeled so that things are done responsibly. And I think it is our responsibility, as the people who use all these things and then pitch them when we are done, never worrying about what happens next. I was appalled at how casually the workers’ , the neighbors’ the environment’s health was taken and it seems even worse because these people don’t have or cannot afford a choice about how things go. Plus, if we’re looking for jobs, responsible recycling here could certainly be providing some, I would think. I read somewhere once that we are big on throwing things “away”, but people don’t understand there is no “away”. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Feisty, Thank you for addressing this oh-so-important topic. I think manufacturers should be obligated to take their broken products back. Use libraries as collection centers–at least containers in the parking lot–for instance, so sorters can earn money on site for the Sonys vs. the Apples. There could be lots of collection sites–free market capitalism–or co-ops to keep these wasted resources at home. Lots of jobs to be had, too, with recycling conditions geared toward safety. Reclaimed metals, like lead, gold and silver, could be re–used.

    By the way, the whole nation should be wary of lead poisoning, as Flint, Michigan shows. Lead is an element, a heavy metal, that sinks to the bottom of rivers, streams, and other large bodies of water. We had lead in paint and gasoline, and it got into the environment. Good for us that we took lead out of those products, but remember, it’s still in the environment. A lead reclamation project could benefit everyone. (As long as we’re dealing with electronic waste. Lead used for solder in all these cell phones? Lead vapor is one of the most insidious toxins, possibly released when circuitry heats up.

    How’s that for an angle?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. We have out e-scrap taken away at no cost to either party here at work, and they dispose of it. I think in everything we do we have to make a conscious effort to think about the risks involved. This waste has to be taken care of, but it has to be done the best way! Great post, keep um coming! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I meant to ask you if you know how the e-scrap is disposed of once it’s picked up? Is it actually recycled locally (because there are areas of the US where this does happen) or is it just dumped off at another recycling center that will ship it elsewhere?


  4. This was another excellent post and I also enjoying reading your readers’ comments. I had heard about this before but this post is an important reminder. I am happy to stopped buying the latest “i-everything” when I used to be obsessed with Apple products. I gave Terry my old iPhone 4s and he is happy with it and I plan to keep my newer iPhone until it does not work anymore, I will not just upgrade to upgrade. I have been fortunate to be able to share with friends who are “lower tech” my old devices (like my original iPad) – although it was old tech for me, it was something new for them (and free). Before I bring any new electronics into my life I will remember this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. This kind of stuff does make us think! I think that there are job opportunities/business ventures that are wide open in this area and if done correctly could definitely help to improve the environment as well as the economy! The Mister and I tend to be late adopters so we are some of those people who might “inherit” things from friends. The Mister is still clinging to hope that his Blackberry can be resurrected!


  5. So it means that once created, the e-waste cannot be discarded completely without harming the environment. And more and more countries are manufacturing these products as there is an increase in demand. Is there any safe method to discard e-waste? Please do let me know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There aren’t many companies that do this. It is a very expensive process to recycle e-waste in an environmentally safe way, but it is slowly changing. Companies like e-Steward are stepping up and do not export the e-waste. Some manufacturers have take back programs but aren’t real forthcoming with what they actually do with the items they take back. Maybe this will help http://www.electronicstakeback.com/how-to-recycle-electronics/

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow.. I never knew this.. In my state they have you bring electronics to the recycling center.. and many people strip them for copper or other metals.. This seems so awful to me, almost like slave labor.. taking advantage of the poor..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly, Mary Ann. They try to jusify it by saying they are creating work and industry for third world countries, but the pictures don’t lie–and neither do the effects on the environment.

      Stripping the components down here in a safer environment will help to create jobs and industry here in the US –and that is much needed.

      Liked by 1 person

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