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How E-Waste Is Becoming a Big, Global Problem

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Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Now for a look at how all of our old gadgets - you know, the stuff you're thrown in the drawers, throwing out - are harming the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. produces more than two-and-a-half million tons of electronic waste each year. The majority of these e-waste goes un-recycled, so most of our discarded electronics are ending up in landfills. And this is raising some serious health and environmental concerns. Is there a good way of getting rid of our old cell phones? Could we better engineer the phones to use greener ingredients?

Derek Markham is a journalist and contributing writer for Treehugger.com. He took a closer look at the growing e-waste problem and its consequences. He did a recent article for the website. He joins us by phone from Silver City, New Mexico. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DEREK MARKHAM: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Tell us: What's the definition of e-waste?

MARKHAM: Well, e-waste is - probably the easiest is anything that has a battery and a circuit board that you power on. Most of it is the portable stuff. We tend to hang on to our, you know, desktop stuff longer. But it could include, you know, things like TVs and stereos, as well.

FLATOW: Well, in your story, you focused on cell phone recycling. And you said the EPA estimates that less than one in 10 mobile phones are recycled, and only about 25 percent of all e-waste is collected for recycling. Why are these numbers so low?

MARKHAM: That is correct. I think maybe part of is they don't account for maybe some of those are being resold or reused, so that could be a small part of it. But I think that maybe people just don't know that, you know, while these resources do wonderful things inside our gadgets, you know, at the end of their life, they can contaminate our air and our water, and maybe they don't realize the importance of it. And the other factor is that maybe it's not very simple for people, not obvious.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. We - yeah, yeah. We don't have recycling centers spread around, you know, in supermarkets and things for you to drop your phone off here.

MARKHAM: Right. Right.

FLATOW: And, you know, it's sort of like the old light bulbs with the mercury in them problem.

MARKHAM: Yeah. And if you don't make it easy, chances are it's not going to happen. And so there are programs, but oftentimes, you need to send it somewhere else. And we're oftentimes not going to make that extra step.

FLATOW: Is it possible to engineer a cell phone that might be greener when you throw it away?

MARKHAM: You know, I don't know if I could speak to that. I have to say that I think that there have been some big advances in materials, but maybe on a fundamental electronic level, we still have to use these same precious metals. But I know that plastics are getting greener and greener every day. So that's one thing that could be changed.

FLATOW: And like light bulbs which have mercury in them, is mercury one of the main culprits in our cell phones?

MARKHAM: You know, most of it is lead and mercury. And there's been, you know, the batteries, especially the, you know, lithium-ion batteries. They can end up - you know, especially if they get incinerated, but even in a landfill, those things can leach out into our groundwater.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So if you wanted to recycle your cell phone or your laptop or anything else, is there any place you can go online and find out how to do that?

MARKHAM: Yeah, there's quite a few of them. I looked up a couple. There's one that's e-Cycle.com. The EPA also has a pretty good index for, you know, how to find these places. There's another one called ecyclingcentral.com, where you can look up local things. And I also advise people to talk to their, you know, local landfill or, you know, contact your carrier or the maker of your phone, because I truly believe that that's something that they could, you know, do better, is - at least make it easy when you're getting that new phone to drop off the old one so that it gets recycled or reused.

FLATOW: Or maybe, you know, even on the box where the phone comes in, it has a label already stuck on it for sticking it back in the mail.

MARKHAM: Yeah. That would be a phenomenal idea.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we sometimes come up with an idea.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much, Derek, for taking time to be with us.

MARKHAM: Thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: Derek Markham, journalist and contributing writer for Treehugger.com, based in Silver City, New Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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