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Where Does Your Computer Go When It Dies?

Indian kids with ewaste

When you take your computer or cell phone back to the store to be "recycled," do you have any idea what actually happens to it? No, it just disappears into a box and you hope that it comes back (to someone) as raw materials. We have some vague idea that it's sent to developing countries, where workers take computers, cell phones, and televisions apart by hand while being exposed to toxins. We need to get a better handle on where e-waste goes.

That's the hope with StEP (Solving the E-Waste Problem), a UN initiative aiming to track the disposal of e-waste in developing countries. The initiative, which already works with Dell and Nokia, is teaming up with the EPA to help authorities track shipments of e-waste to Asia and Africa—and then help those nations cope with our enormous amounts of broken electronic imports. The five-year partnership has some impressive plans: tracking routes by which electronics leave the country, assessing the amounts of electronics that leave on those routes, and helping developing countries work on e-waste refurbishment and disposal, among other things. When it's done, hopefully we'll know where our e-waste goes and what happens to it once it gets there.

This isn't just about preventing workers from exposure to toxins, of course; it's also about cash. There's gold in them there computers. And any number of other valuable metals. StEP believes that "Recovering many valuable, and indeed now critical, metals in e-waste—such as tin, indium, palladium and cobalt—could be boosted by better end-of-life management." Consider: Recycling one million cell phones could recover 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium, and 20,000 pounds of copper.

If we can make this work for e-waste, imagine if we applied it to all recycling. Most people have little idea what happens to their curbside recyclables after they get picked up. Who wouldn't be more inclined to recycle if they knew that their specific soda bottles were being turned into, say, a pair of shoes?

[Photo by Greenpeace India]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.