We Know the Wrong Way to Deal With e-Waste. But What Should We Do Instead?

A handful of firms around the world are working to develop environmentally responsible recycling and disposal strategies. Here’s what they have to teach the rest of us.

Photo © iStockphoto.com/baranozdemir

Photo © iStockphoto.com/baranozdemir

August 22, 2018 — Rajesh was just 10 years old when we met. His days were spent standing on tiptoe to dunk computer circuit boards into big vats of hot acid. He had gloves but no goggles, and the acid splashed his shirt. He had an incessant cough and drank alcohol at night to ward off dizziness caused by the fumes.

Rajesh had moved with his older brother from the Indian countryside to work in Mandoli, a suburb of the Indian capital New Delhi, which has become a charnel house of the digital world. The vats of acid that he tended removed the copper from the circuit boards so it could then be sold to a nearby factory that made copper wire. Somebody made a profit. But in the acrid air and with local well water contaminated by toxic metals, Rajesh’s future looked bleak

This scene in Mandoli is a disturbing face of a vast global business in recycling electronic waste. Between 20 and 50 million metric tons (22 and 55 million tons) of used computers, TVs, air conditioners, mobile phones, refrigerators, light bulbs and other e-waste is produced every year around the world. All of it has to go somewhere, and all of it contains valuable metals — including toxic lead, cadmium and mercury — that are worth reclaiming for future use.