How Earth Day Recycling Events Can Actually Harm the Earth

Full disclosure:  I have never been a fan of Earth Day.  My aversion started with my college campus being plastered by fliers this time of year, then going to Earth Day fairs at which plastic trinkets were handed out freely, and finally, the messages many companies broadcasted about how “green” they were, only to indulge in less-than-friendly environmental practices the rest of the year.

The origins of Earth Day, however, do merit respect, and it is not a bad thing to remind people about the relatively simple tasks on which they can work to make their neighborhoods and planet better places to live.  But one Earth Day ritual that has picked up steam in recent years, e-waste recycling drives, is turning into a huge worldwide environmental problem.

Many Earth Day event organizers and volunteers want to do good, and intercepting old electronic goods before they end up in a landfill may appear to be a noble cause.  Unfortunately, many of these recycling firms are ethically challenged, and end up shipping the e-waste to developing countries.  According to Robert Houghton, President of Redemtech, an IT asset recovery firm, this waste is often dismantled in horrid conditions that cause devastating health problems, causing even more of a problem than a viable solution.

Before you pitch your computer, remember that reuse is always better than recycling:  see if there is someone who can actually use it—perhaps they only need it for surfing the web or word processing.  You could also have it repaired.  Repairing a computer, thanks to the plethora of IT folks who often work on their own or on the side, is actually not as pricey as one may think.  The more that computer is used, the less likely it is to become a toxins bomb:  many computers and electronics are laden with mercury, lead, PVCs, PCBs, sulfur, and other elements on the periodic chart that you do not want leeching into groundwater or poisoning a 12-year-old abroad.

But if your computer or other electronic equipment is absolutely unusable, now there is a way to vet your local e-waste collector.  Based in Seattle, e-Stewards has designed a certification program for electronics recyclers that ensures that the toxic materials found in these products are properly treated and reprocessed.  A project of the Basel Action Network (BAN), e-Stewards gives consumers peace of mind knowing that their obsolete electronics goods will be safely broken down and not be dismantled by children in appalling working conditions.  Going beyond its certification process, e-Stewards also conducts an auditing program that rigorously trains professionals to gauge whether a recycling scheme is actually following the safest possible procedures.

Most consumers really want to do the right thing, and unfortunately, it’s easy to be bamboozled by slick signs (often green with images of pretty flowers and trees) touting how sustainable and eco-friendly a recycling program is purported to be.  Thankfully, a visit to e-Stewards’ site can guarantee that your old electronic equipment won’t just toss, incinerate, or get shipped to a country with dubious labor practices.

So Happy Earth Day.  Celebrate it by doing your homework the next time you decide to donate your old electronics.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.