By Catherine Martini
Contributing Writer


Today’s world is a globalized world. Technological improvements in transportation during the 20th century, made possible by the widespread acceptance of the combustion engine, knit the world together in ways never before seen in human history. As the century came to a close, new technologies such as cell phones, personal computers, the Internet and laptops made their way onto the world stage. Widespread acceptance of these new technologies into our everyday lives has revolutionized the way humans interact across the globe.  The acceptance of these new technologies has made possible beautiful and astounding advances for human culture: computer technology has enabled scientists to fully sequence human DNA, the Internet has enabled widespread access to information for billions of individuals and the proliferation of smart phones and social media sites have enabled open source social movements such as the Arab Spring and the American Autumn.  However, fully embracing and maximizing the utility of these inventions also necessitates addressing their full impact on humans and the environment throughout the entire life cycle of the devices.  This must be done to ensure that they do not ultimately harm human life more than they help it.

The pace at which new telecommunication technologies are developed and become obsolete is astounding.  “The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that U.S. Americans own approximately 25 electronic products per household. Eighty percent of U.S. Americans have no qualms about tossing their unwanted electronic items into the trash: 350,000 cell phones and 130,000 computers are thrown out daily” (Conrad 348).  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), computers have a life cycle of 3-5 years, while that of cellphones is a shorter 18 months (EPA The Life Cycle of a Cell Phone; Lehnert).  When consumers are done with these electronic devices, they become ‘e-waste’.  E-waste “contains toxic heavy metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, as well as hazardous chemicals such as brominated flame retardants” (Zhang 982).

The consequences of short life cycles for electronic devices comprised of precious metals and complex polymer plastics create a diverse range of environmental pollution that is accumulating at an alarming rate.  A single Cathode Ray Tube (CRT), present in many now outdated TV and computer monitors, contains 2-8 lbs. of lead “and is one of the largest sources of this toxic heavy metal in [U.S.] municipal dumps” (Royte 82).  In her book On The Secret Trail of Trash, Elizabeth Royte details what happens when much of our e-waste reaches landfills.  Circuit boards from our computers and hand-held devices contain heavy metals such as tin, zinc, silver, chromium, copper and antimony.  When they get discarded in U.S. landfills, they are either:

“Crushed, leach[ing] metals into soil and water. [Or] burned in a trash incinerator, emitting noxious fumes, including dioxins and furans. Though scrubbers and screens would catch much of those emissions, scientists consider even minute quantities of them, once airborne, to be dangerous. Prolonged exposure to some of the metals in electronic devices has been shown to cause abnormal brain development in children, and nerve damage, endocrine disruption and organ damage in adults” (82).

These environmental and health hazards pose a serious threat to American citizens, and the problem is pervasive. According to the National Safety Council, as of 2005, 60 million personal computers had already been discarded in U.S. landfills (Royte 82).  The environmental and health consequences of e-waste not only jeopardize American citizens, but also citizens of other nations.

Discarded electronic items, or ‘e-waste’, are quickly becoming one of the largest solid waste streams in the world (Lawhon 1; Zhang 981).  Most e-waste is shipped abroad from the Global North to the Global South to be ‘recycled’ in nations with less stringent environmental standards. In the Global South, e-waste is picked apart by hand to extract the last remaining bits of valuable materials such as gold and copper, exposing workers to over 700 toxic chemicals (Conrad 348, 352; Zhang 981-2). According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 80% of the 2.6 million tons of e-waste that the U.S. produces annually is shipped to Asia and Africa (Garber; Ghosh;).  In Guiyu, China, one of the main recipients of global e-waste, children under the age of 6 have an 81% incidence rate of lead poisoning (Zhang 982).  The water is so toxic in Guiyu that residents must drink bottled water.  However, toxic water is still used for bathing and cleaning due to the prohibitive cost of bottled water for these activities (Lehnert). Workers in Guiyu, many of whom are children, wear “no protective gear, [and] reportedly swirl a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acid—caustic, highly poisonous chemicals – in open vats, trying to extract gold from components” (Royte 84).  Once the gold is extracted the acids are dumped onto open fields, contaminating ground water. Tests on the soil confirmed levels of “lead, chromium and barium that were hundreds of times higher than those allowed by U.S. and European environmental health standards” (Royte 84).

The shipment of toxic waste from rich nations to poor nations represents a classic case of Environmental Racism.  Environmental Racism is a cluster concept that targets individuals of lower socioeconomic status, racial status, and political status in that they will be less likely or less able to fight the injustices of environmental pollution being bequeathed upon them. (Hilger 2011).  In the case of e-waste, it is the Global North, or developed nations, engaging in Environmental Racism against the Global South, or developing nations. The Basel Action Network, an NGO that works against the exportation and trade of toxic chemicals, says, “The mass migration of the ‘effluent of the affluent’ in the name of development, globalization and free trade is in fact a violation of environmental justice that can be considered a crime against the environment and human rights” (BAN).

International human rights laws and covenants support this position, and protect against Environmental Racism.  Article 3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.  These rights can be severely undermined by environmental degradation and pollution, which are ‘externalized’ by rich countries when they outsource their e-waste to poorer nations.  ‘Security of persons’ is violated when the life giving and sustaining essence of water is stripped and replaced with toxic chemicals that threaten the life it might otherwise nourish. ‘Security of persons’ is also violated when the environment is so degraded by pollution that it causes individuals to become sick or diseased, as is the case in Guiyu, China.  The environmental pollution that results from the globalized e-waste trade threatens life at its most basic level: access to clean water and air.  When life is threatened by extreme environmental poisoning (as in the case of an 81% lead poisoning incidence rate in Guiyu) ‘liberty’ is not even possible.

Article 2 of the UDHR protects against environmental racism when it states, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.  Saddling poor nations with an unjust burden of toxic pollution in the name of profits to multi-national corporations (MNCs) or e-waste smugglers violates Article 2 of the UDHR. The environment and human rights are unshakably intertwined, due to the fact that humans are totally embedded in and dependent on the ecology of nature for our survival.  Extreme pollution that threatens environmental integrity is an attack on the foundation for human life (Barry 319).

As globalization accelerated, the trade of its toxic byproducts increased as well.  In 1989 an International Convention was created to address the issue.  The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, commonly referred to as the Basel Convention, entered into force in 1992.  It specifically prohibits “all forms of hazardous waste exports from the 29 wealthiest most industrialized countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to all non-OECD countries” (Conrad 348).  While the treaty makes the shipping of e-waste across international borders illegal, the phenomena still persists, and is accelerating according to a United Nations report (Ghosh).

The U.S. has signed the convention but has not yet ratified it.  This paper will examine how the U.S.’s failure to ratify the treaty has undercut global solutions to the e-waste problem and offer a solution.  My policy recommendation is that the United States concurrently ratify the Basel Convention and the 1995 amendment to the convention, which specifically prohibits the movement of e-waste, called the Basel Ban.  Additionally, I recommend that the U.S. government enlist the assistance of NGOs and non-profit organizations to develop an array of Public Service Announcements (PSA) and educational information to be disseminated to consumers regarding the human and environmental health hazards of improper disposal of e-waste, as well as resources and instructions on how to properly handle this aspect of the solid toxic waste stream that touches each of our lives on a daily basis.


The root cause of the e-waste problem lies entangled within the overlapping and competing theories of Marxism, Neo-Liberalism, and Social Ecology, and is, for the most part, outside the scope of this policy brief.  However, I would be remiss not to address the concept of environmental externalities.  In unbridled, unregulated, neo-liberal capitalism, the true environmental costs of production and distributing a product are never included in the price of the item, but rather ‘externalized’. But just because the environmental costs of a product are not reflected in its sticker price does not mean they do not exist. There are some environmentally ethical corporations, but their policies are purely elective and optional in a capitalist system (Deresiewicz). Without trade regulations, environmental taxes, or trade barriers put in place by governments, capitalism will always run on economic efficiency and not environmental efficiency.  And as globalization stands today, this involves a ‘race to the bottom’ in the name of economic efficiency in which MNCs reduce costs by seeking sources of labor and resources in nations with the lowest environmental and worker safety standards (Barry 320).

This policy brief will address three stakeholders in the phenomena of e-waste. The first are those capitalist actors that produce electronic goods. The second group of stakeholders are the victims of environmental externalities that result as a byproduct of the first group’s business practices. This second group of stakeholders includes all humans, as the earth is a closed system, and therefore pollution in one area ultimately interacts with the entire system, primarily spread through the water cycle. However, victims experience varying degrees of exposure to toxicity, depending on their proximity to point sources of e-waste pollution. Those most directly in the cross-hairs of global toxic e-waste exposure are China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, and Pakistan (NPR Staff).  U.S. prisoners are also inordinately affected by the e-waste phenomena (this will be examined further on). This second group includes U.S. citizens as well, due to the fact that e-waste ends up in U.S. landfills and corrupts both our drinking water and our air quality. The third and final group of stakeholders are the governmental regulators, whose job it is to protect their constituents, and ensure their right to “life, liberty, and the security of persons” (UNDHR Art 3).


As the world’s largest recipient of e-waste, the case study of Guiyu, China proves illustrative for solutions to the problem.  Liping Zhang, from the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University in China, argues that, “There is no good reason why the increasing volume of e-waste generated each year should not and could not be properly managed in the form of reliable disposal and recycling processes” (Zhang 983).  After much international and media attention regarding the astounding amount of pollution in Guiyu, and the resulting human health concerns, the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to address the problem.  China joined the Basel Convention in 1990, and ratified the Basel Ban amendment to regulate e-waste in 1995. Additionally, it built numerous state-run recycling centers that provided workers with proper safety gear and working conditions. “These measures were aimed at redirecting e-waste activities into the mainstream ‘circular economy’, a model that takes seriously environmental protection, pollution prevention and sustainable development” (Zhang 983).  The ‘circular economy’ incorporates a cradle-to-grave approach where a product is tracked through each step of the process from production to retirement.  Often the producer of the product is responsible for the entire life cycle of its product in a ‘polluter pays’ paradigm (Zhang 983).  However, even with the new environmentally friendly technology, and by transforming part of what was once an illegal, shoddy, backyard process into a clean, green, state-run industry which also attempted to streamline product design to reduce e-waste, China still couldn’t get its e-waste problem under control.  This was mostly due to the United States undercutting their efforts, but also due to the lack of an established system for the collection of domestically produced e-waste.

In 2003, Greenpeace China published a report that recommended the Chinese government stop accepting any foreign imports of e-waste and focus exclusively on domestic supplies.  The report also attributed much of the remaining illegal e-waste trade “to the lack of an established e-waste collection system, most e-waste [was] being sold to peddlers and small workshops that paid much higher prices than the plants” (Zhang 984).  Smaller plants and workshops could get higher prices on the black market for e-waste than the Chinese government-run program, ironically due to the international normative success of the Basel Ban.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) stated in February 2012, that, “The rising costs for legal waste disposal in developed countries has created ‘illicit business opportunities’, which could be worth as much as US$12 billion a year” (Ghosh).  Due to the success of international regulations banning the movement of e-waste across national boundaries, the process has been driven underground into the hands of powerful drug and human-trafficking cartels, who use their pre-existing global networks to move yet one more profitable illegal substance (Ghosh).

As one of the largest consumer nations on the planet, and also one of the last major economic players to have not ratified the Basel Convention, the United States has a large hand in undercutting the legitimate Chinese government e-waste recycling programs.  As mentioned earlier in this brief, the United States produces 2.6 million tons of e-waste annually, of which 80% still gets sent to Asia and Africa.  Despite the Chinese government’s successful reduction in the illegal e-waste trade thus far, the 2.6 million tons of e-waste leaving the United States will continue to feed the global black market, worth $12 billion yearly, and will continue to undercut worldwide solutions to the problem.

The United States has maintained its policy position of not ratifying the Basel Convention despite immense international criticism and pressure (Conrad 348). “The U.S. government, believes it has responded to its critics through its repatriation of e-waste recycling programs under the supervision of the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The U.S. Federal Prison Industries (widely known by its trade name, UNICOR) proclaims they are responding… effectively through their inmate e-waste recycling program” (Conrad 348).  This is the only fully federally funded and operated e-waste program that the United States currently has.  Under this BOP program U.S. inmates are forced to work in nearly the same deplorable conditions as the e-waste disassembly sites abroad.  Prisoners are not provided with proper safety gear, or even proper ventilation, exposing them to over 700 toxic chemicals (Conrad 348). The current U.S. response to, and purported ‘solution’ to its e-waste problem is in fact more immoral and detrimental to human rights than the global e-waste trade due to the fact that prisoners are forced into it.  Prisoners have been stripped of their rights as citizens, and therefore have no resources to speak out about the injustice of their situation, nor the ability to challenge the abuses of their human rights at the hands of the U.S. government. This represents a classic case of Environmental Racism.

The BOP e-waste recycling programs have been cited for various blatant environmental violations, and an OSHA investigation revealed that the program “shows ‘willful’ and ‘plain indifference’ to worker health and safety” (Conrad 352). Inmates are essentially slave labor. These massive infringements upon the human rights of U.S. citizens are not only flagrantly immoral and unjust; they are being committed in the name of a policy that isn’t even effective! Eighty percent of U.S. e-waste is still shipped abroad (Garber; Ghosh).


My policy recommendation is in solidarity with BAN’s Policy Principle #14:

Trade Barriers to Prevent Toxic Waste Dumping Are Necessary: Waste should not be allowed to move across borders for economic reasons to take advantage of cost externalities. Purely economic motivations result in toxic waste flowing to the poorest countries with the least protections. As toxic waste management can never be 100% safe or without externalized costs, it is inherently unjust to burden poor countries with wastes from the developed world. International trade barriers to this free flow of toxic waste are warranted and must be respected and strengthened.

(BAN Policy Principles).

I recommend that the U.S. Senate concurrently ratify the Basel Convention and the 1995 Basel Ban amendment to the convention which specifically prohibits the movement of e-waste, in order to assert the United States as an international power that lives up to its rhetoric about being a defender of human rights, protect its citizens from environmental harm, and honor the decision of President George H.W. Bush, who signed the Basel Convention on March 22, 1990. When the United States ratifies the Basel Convention and Basel Ban, it will commence to be a global supporter of environmental sustainability, human rights and a global comrade in the fight against the trade of toxic substances, rather than a foe who undercuts the efforts of other nations by supporting an illegal smuggling cartel.

This ideal role for America in international politics can only be achieved if the United States additionally creates the necessary domestic legislation to address its domestic chain of e-waste.  This could be done in one of two ways.  The first would be by creating government-run public recycling facilities that would be regulated by OSHA and EPA standards and utilize the labor of free individuals who are paid at least minimum wage.  The second would be by crafting domestic legislation forcing the electronics industry to engage in a circular economic model that shifts the ‘polluter pays’ principle onto the producer rather than the consumer; this would internalize environmental externalities, forcing producers to take full responsibility for their products throughout the entirety of these products’ life cycles by implementing cradle-to-grave business practices.  While this would be difficult domestic legislation to achieve in a political climate beset by immensely powerful and well-established corporate lobbies, it is the role and duty of governments to engage in activities that require collective action to overcome.  Just as an individual cannot build an interstate highway system alone, consumers cannot protect themselves from environmental toxicity perpetuated by a capitalist economy that structurally and systematically places profits above people.  The EPA was created in the 1970s for this reason, and would be an appropriate bureaucracy to implement the new policies.

Select U.S. states have attempted to circumvent the U.S. government’s lack of federal trade policy to regulate e-waste through including recycling fees in the cost of certain electronic devices such as televisions. In California, the fee is roughly $6-10, depending on the size of the television (Garber). These policies are inherently flawed due to the fact that increased cost burden falls on the consumer rather than the producer, absolving corporations of the responsibility for the entire life cycle of the products they design and produce, and their respective environmental consequences.

Additionally, this piecemeal federalist approach is ineffective and counterproductive.  Only the federal government has the power, authority and resources to implement an international trade barrier that can be applied and enforced in a uniform way that imposes real credible sanctions. Currently, without this, and despite the BOP program, a host of ‘in name only’ e-waste recyclers have sprung up.  A company can claim that a gadget is being recycled by selling it to a secondary company or intermediary in a neutral country, which in turn sells it to e-waste smugglers and peddlers.  The American company has therefore absolved itself of legal responsibility via the intermediary (Heimbuch; NPR staff). Without federal legislation that completely bans any exportation of e-waste, U.S. law currently endorses this practice of fraudulent ‘in name only’ recyclers.

Learning from the policy failures of the Chinese model, the United States’ domestic e-waste program, whether government or industry-led, would need to have a well established e-waste collection system.  Implementing and sustaining this collection system would require consumer education on the problem and its newly imposed solutions.

Therefore, I additionally recommend that the U.S. government enlist the assistance of NGO’s and non-profit organizations to help develop an array of PSAs and educational information to be disseminated to consumers regarding the human and environmental health hazards of improper disposal of e-waste, as well as resources and instructions on how to properly handle this aspect of the solid toxic waste stream that touches each of our lives on a daily basis.


It is essential that the U.S. Senate concurrently ratify the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban in order to fully assume the position this nation espouses internationally of being a supporter and defender of human rights for individuals both abroad and domestically. Additionally, doing so would improve our international reputation as a global equal in the name of environmental sustainability, as opposed to a foe who undercuts the advances in sustainability of other nations. In the face of international and domestic legislation that has failed to fully solve the inherent problems between capitalism and environmental externalities, you, the consumer, are the only one that can determine how you will interact with your e-waste.  The EPA estimates that each American produces 20 lbs. of e-waste annually (Garber).  So the question is, what do you do with yours? Or more importantly, what will you do with it after reading this policy brief?


http://e-stewards.org/find-a-recycler/ A branch of BAN’s E-Waste Stewardship Project that helps you find a responsible e-waste collection site near you.

http://www.epa.gov/osw/education/pdfs/life-cell.pdf A site focused on educating teenagers on the life cycle of a cell phone as well as the associated problems.

http://www.opencongress.org/people/zipcodelookup A site providing methods of contacting your local government representative.

www.ban.org A source for e-waste news and updates.


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Image by Greenpeace India


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