Press release

On Eve of Earth Day New Report Spotlights Explosion of High Tech Trash and its Toxic Byproducts

New York, NY – On the eve of Earth Day, a new report by the policy center Demos spotlights the dangerous effects of the millions of tons of electronics that are thrown away each year by American households. 

The study, entitled "Tackling High Tech Trash: The E-Waste Explosion and What We Can do About It," authored by journalist Elizabeth Grossman, exposes the other side of our electronic buying addition (and the planned obsolescence and marketing that leads us to do it), namely, ever-growing piles of discarded electronics, or “e-waste.” Without convenient and guaranteed safe outlets, e-waste has become the “world's fastest growing and potentially most dangerous waste problem,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The short, accompanying animated video, "The Story Of Electronics," developed by Annie Leonard and the team behind The Story of Stuff Project, shows exactly how the electronics industry, guided by a rule of "Designed for the Dump," created an unsustainable cycle that is not only wasteful but harmful to both people and the environment. (Watch the video here: http://bit.ly/bbM53o)

"Tackling High Tech Trash" brings a sharp new focus to the problem, with up-to-date numbers and the latest thinking about solutions. Demos program director Lew Daly, who commissioned and edited the report for Demos’ Sustainable Progress Initiative, said that “remarkable technological developments in electronics have driven down prices while increasing functionality and capacity, enabling rapid gains in value at relatively low upfront cost to consumers. The resulting benefits have created the most positive economic storyline of the past 15 years. Yet at the same time we have a real crisis of responsibility here, because our consumption of high-tech electronics has far outstripped our ability to handle all the waste we’re leaving behind with each new upgrade.”

In the report, author Elizabeth Grossman looks closely at the trends driving this problem:

--  In a market worth about $233 billion in 2010, Americans now own about 3 billion electronic products, with a turnover rate of about 400 million units annually. Together, these sales volumes and rapid turnover rates have created the fastest growing waste stream in the world: in the U.S. alone, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 372 million electronic units weighing 3.16 million tons entered the waste stream in 2007 and 2008. Less than 14 percent was recycled, with the rest going to dumps and incinerators. Much of what is recycled, moreover, is handled unsafely in developing countries, posing serious health and environmental hazards. 

-- In contrast to other high-volume waste streams such as industrial effluents and air pollution, the rapidly growing U.S. e-waste stream is relatively uncontrolled and lightly regulated, relying on a patchwork of voluntary “take-back” initiatives, and legislated state and local electronics recycling programs. With 4 to 5 billion units projected to enter the e-waste stream in the United States over the next 10 years, we urgently need to develop a more comprehensive and coordinated policy framework to regulate and restrict hazardous dumping and recycling while also incentivizing design innovations that extend product life and reduce overall toxicity in electronics.

The report revealingly analyzes the unique characteristics of electronics production, consumption, and disposal that make e-waste particularly problematic to control and hazardous if left uncontrolled, including: 

--  Short product life-spans—the commercial and technological origins of rapid turnover in consumer electronics.

-- Design and materials complexity, global supply chains, and insufficiently regulated recycling and e-scrap markets.

-- The high toxicity of many materials used in electronic devices, and the adverse health and environmental impacts of poorly regulated e-waste disposal, materials salvage, and recycling-for-reuse. 

An extensive policy discussion focuses on how to improve the scope and safety of recycling systems and assesses the challenges involved in moving toward a more integrated life-cycle approach to electronics design, production, and recycling. “Ultimately, controlling the problem of e-waste has to begin with how products are designed and the materials they contain,” Daly said. “We need products that are better designed, more adaptable for longer life-spans, and less toxic when they’re thrown away. Along with the public sector and consumers themselves, producers in this very profitable industry need to take more responsibility for the disposal costs that, to this point, have been borne largely by local communities and the environment. For all involved, the most cost-effective way of doing that is by innovation in the products themselves.”

For more information or to schedule an interview please contact Tim Rusch at (212) 389.1497 or [email protected].

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