Humanosphere is on hiatus. Many thanks to our web design, development and hosting partner Culture Foundry for keeping the site active while we plan our next move. Culture Foundry builds, evolves and supports next-level websites and applications for clients you know, and you couldn’t ask for a better partner to help you thrive in digital. If you’re considering an ambitious website design or development project, we encourage you to make them your very first call.

Is our desire for the latest e-gizmo poisoning the poor worldwide?

Burning e-waste in dump outside Accra, Ghana

We love gizmos

The media love-fest with digital gizmos is moving from the high-pitched holiday phase (electronic devices are always the top gifts for Christmas) into a smaller, but more intense hysterical phase this week with the opening of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Tuesday.

My buddy Todd Bishop at Seattle-based Geekwire, for example, posted out of Sin City his story about this awesome mini-helicopter you can pilot using your smart phone. Cool! I want one ….

Americans are the world’s leading consumers of electronic devices. We are also the world’s biggest wasters of electronic devices.

When we buy new gizmos, we usually want to get rid of the old ones. Electronic waste (aka e-waste) is a surprisingly large, toxic and growing burden inflicted, like many such afflictions, mostly on poor people in poor countries.


As my KPLU colleague Monica Spain reported Monday, most folks in Seattle know they aren’t supposed to just toss their old TV or computer into the garbage. That’s why the state Department of Ecology launched its e-cycle program aimed at making it easy for us to responsibly discard our gizmos.

But as Monica noted, this can require a certain amount of due diligence on the consumer’s part to responsibly discard your old laptop, TV or other electronic device. Just taking your obsolete (i.e., last year’s model) computer to any old recycling facility may not be good enough due to some gaping loopholes in the law.

In fact, some experts say our efforts to reduce e-waste at home appears to be contributing to the poisoning of some communities overseas.

“We have passed laws that keeps this stuff out of our own landfills but tends to send it offshore,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the internationally renowned e-waste advocacy organization Basel Action Network.

The group last week warned of “fake recyclers” who aren’t actually recycling devices. BAN says they are actually engaged in the illicit export of electronic devices to China, Africa and India where impoverished people smash and burn the waste in search of precious metals or marketable components. (See BAN photo slide show above).

The Seattle-based organization is named for the Basel Convention — an international treaty passed in 1989 that prohibits countries from dumping hazardous wastes in other countries. Only three countries — Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States — have refused to adhere to the Basel Convention.

“This is against international law but not against the law in the U.S.,” said Puckett.

As a result, the U.S. continues to be one of the key contributors to this massive and growing but woefully under-appreciated tangle of environmental, economic and health crises.

It’s a crisis largely out of sight and mind in the rich world — driven by the fast-moving, modern churn of our desire for electronic upgrades, the tech industry’s devotion to stunningly rapid ‘planned obsolescence’ and our failure to consider what really happens to our old devices when we throw them away. There really is no ‘away,’ notes Puckett.

Tomorrow, thanks to my laptop, digital camera and smart phone (not to mention the KPLU servers and all the rest of the ‘Interwebs’ electronica I take for granted), I intend to take a closer look at this issue of e-waste and how two other local organizations are working to reduce its toxic load on the planet.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.