Peter Essick


Ever wonder where the cell phone or computer you toss ends up? Our writer follows her own digital detritus to the far ends of the earth.

By Ellen Ruppel Shell/ Photography by Peter Essick
Published: May-June 2008

My basement is a mausoleum of sorts, cluttered with memorabilia harking back to childhood. Deep in its depths, behind the sports equipment and long-forgotten board games, lurks a jumble of electronic gadgetry--computers, monitors, and printers--that for me have outlived their usefulness. These are formidable objects, hefty machines that I know, instinctively, do not belong in the trash. So the pile remains, trapped in a twilight zone between desktop and dump, a sorry reminder of the power of Moore's Law.

Gordon Moore, a cofounder of Intel Corporation, famously observed more than 40 years ago that computer processing power doubles every two years, the corollary being that all the machines suddenly rendered half as powerful as the current standard are on an inexorable march toward obsolescence. In the United States alone, an estimated 197 million computers made this trek between 2000 and 2005, according to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers. But computers are only one tributary feeding this torrent of "e-waste." Every year Americans "retire" an estimated 130 million cell phones and untold tons of printers, copiers, keyboards, mice, portable media players, VCRs, scanners, and digital cameras.

While some of this detritus languishes in attics and basements, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that each year about two million tons of it are dumped and left to fall apart and leak their toxic innards across the landscape. Discarded electronics comprise 70 percent of heavy metal contamination in the nation's landfills, a horrifying thought for anyone who worries about public health. The international prospect is even more daunting, though also hopeful, as I was to observe during my 10,000-mile journey on the e-waste trail through Europe and China. But before I left, I decided to take a look at the problem closer to home.

The dumping of e-waste has grown into such an environmental disaster that I tried to ignore the tangle of computers and printers hiding in the basement, where at least they could do no harm. But when I learned I could unload the stuff safely not far from my home in Newton, Massachusetts, I dutifully excavated an ancient IBM desktop and drove it to a nearby "transfer station" for recycling. An attendant pointed me to a room-sized container crammed nearly to the roof with outdated electronics. I wedged my machine among the other castoffs and silently pledged to return the following week with the rest of the electronic junk lurking in my basement. Doing good had never been so easy.

In truth I had no idea where that computer was headed. When I asked Elaine Gentile, director of Newton's Division of Environmental Affairs, she seemed surprised. Apparently not many people concern themselves with the trajectory of their abandoned electronics. Gentile told me my computer was likely en route to the Massachusetts headquarters of CRT Recycling Inc., a company that trucks roughly 20 tons of discarded computers, television sets, and other electronics out of my small city every month.

CRT Recycling is housed in a low-slung, ramshackle building whose entrance seems to be a secret. It took me some time to find the door, and when I did and walked inside it was clear why sign-age was not a priority--the place was cavernous, cacophonous, strewn with junk, and definitely not for tourists. General manager Peter Kopcych waved me into the relative quiet of his office. A compact yet burly man, he wore a sweatshirt that bore the mark of one too few launderings. Kopcych rose from behind his desk and gathered a small entourage of employees to escort me on a tour.

Walking deep into the din we came to an open area raucous with salsa music and littered with cardboard boxes the size of Shetland ponies. Kopcych buys these "gaylords" for three bucks apiece from truckers hauling produce from the West Coast. His workers peel out the wilted lettuce leaves, line the boxes with protective plastic, and fill them with wire, gears, plastic parts, printers, keyboards, computers, battery packs, and broken glass from cathode ray tubes. As we chatted a virtual United Nations of recycling entrepreneurs filed by: A two-man team rummaged a hillock of computer printers, yanking out the ink cartridges to refill at their Rhode Island factory and sell on the secondhand market. A pair of Haitian dealers combed through a pile of television sets, culling the best ones for sale in their home country. A couple of guys from the Dominican Republic clipped compressors from a lineup of rusting refrigerators. This was low-hanging fruit, parts that can be readily refurbished and resold at a profit. But the bulk of Kopcych's booty gets shipped to the developing world.

Thirteen years ago more than 62 nations agreed to a ban on the export of hazardous waste--including electronic waste--from wealthy to less wealthy countries. Since then several more countries have signed on, but some major players--Canada, Australia, and the United States among them--have not ratified the ban, and it does not yet wield the force of law. This foot-dragging, environmentalists complain, has stalled reform. "Free and easy export of waste to the developing world is killing incentives for American recyclers to do the right thing," says Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network, an environmental advocacy group. "Americans are less willing to invest in change because it's so cheap to simply ship waste abroad and so profitable to poison the poor."

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Ellen Ruppel Shell

Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor at the graduate program in science journalism at Boston University.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.