Where Old IPhones Go to Die

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
Read More.
a | A

This holiday season, as you upgrade that old smartphone, pause a moment to reflect on an unexpected fact: In 2012, developing nations -- including China, India, Brazil, and Russia -- tossed out more e-waste (25.4 million tons) than the world's developed nations, including the U.S., Japan, and the European Union (23.5 million tons).

That's the major conclusion that the Solving the e-Waste Problem initiative, or StEP, a United Nations program based in Bonn, Germany has drawn from its new E-Waste World Map, an ongoing, online amalgamation of global data on the disposal of electronic gadgets. The need for such a tool is pressing: The amount of e-waste generated worldwide -- comprising everything from old black-and-white televisions to first-generation iPads -- is set to grow 33 percent by 2017, according to data culled from StEP's map and press releases. Most of that growth will come from the developing world, where increasingly rich consumers have been snapping up more gadgets.

In 2012, for example, China generated 7.995 million tons of e-waste, second only to the U.S., which threw out 10.317 million tons. So long as China's middle-class grows, so will its share of global e-waste and that poses a problem: If recycled improperly, e-waste can emit hazardous substances and pollute.

Indeed, small-scale, household-style e-waste recycling of the sort practiced in the poorest developing countries can sometimes involve hazardous, low-tech refining of metals from circuit boards and other difficult-to-recycle items. Unfortunately, safer, industrial-scale recycling requires significant financial investments and advanced (often proprietary) technical knowledge that developed world companies aren't always keen to share. Safe recycling also requires governments that are able to enforce the necessary laws, regulations and programs. Not even Japan, perhaps the most advanced recycling economy in the world, has proved capable of achieving this goal consistently.

Fortunately, better methods of e-waste recycling are finally reaching the developing world. China, despite problems along the way, has begun to implement a national e-waste recycling program that is probably the world's largest. It may not meet European, Japanese, or American standards -- and in my experience some licensed recyclers don't even meet Chinese standards -- but the multi-billion dollar scale of the financial and human resource investment that the Chinese government is making dwarfs anything tried in the U.S. That's worth admiring, if not emulating.

There's a long standing belief that Americans dump their e-waste in the developing world. In reality, the U.S., the EU, and Japan don't export e-waste in anywhere near the volumes that alarmists have claimed. According to a second StEP report issued this week, in 2010 as little as 8.5 percent of the 258.2 million computers, monitors, TVs and mobile phones collected in the U.S. were exported. Many, if not most, of those exports were destined for re-use by consumers, who couldn't afford to buy the gadgets new, according to other studies.

In future, developing nations such as China will probably come to represent something else: the home of world's largest recycling factories. With luck and foresight, they'll also be some of the best.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net