How GPS Tracking Technology Exposed a Major E-Waste Problem

2 Jan

As technology has become a more and more essential part of our daily lives over the last few years, it has actually given rise to a fairly significant problem that must be solved sooner rather than later: e-waste. According to the experts at Earth911.com, e-waste is an issue that is only going to get worse before it gets better. The United States alone discards about 9.4 million tons of electronic waste every year. Only about 12.5% of that total is ever recycled. According to the EPA, there are 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver and an incredible 75 pounds of gold that can be recovered from every one million cell phones – provided that they’re properly disposed of, that is.

One nonprofit organization based out of Seattle is turning toward technology itself in an attempt to combat this issue head-on. A two-year investigation into electronics recycling was recently conducted using GPS tracking and similar devices to try to uncover the extent of the problem we now face as a society. The results were, in a word, startling.

The Basel Action Network (BAN)

The Basel Action Network used GPS tracking devices for two full years in an attempt to find out not only how much e-waste is being created on a regular basis, but where these items are actually ending up if they’re NOT headed for a recycling center. What they revealed was more than alarming – nearly 33% of all devices that are supposed to be recycled are often exported to developing countries around the world. Much of that equipment is then dismantled –  often by child labor – in an effort to acquire the valuable gold and other materials inside.

The major issue that this poses is one of health concerns. Not only does this type of work endanger the workers themselves, but it can also be a threat to their families and can even contaminate the areas surrounding the shops and the local environment.

The two-year investigation began after representatives from BAN noticed that, despite the fact that statistics associated with e-waste exports were dropping, the actual problem itself didn’t seem to be getting any better. After a careful analysis of the situation, they recommended to the federal government that GPS tracking devices be used to monitor e-waste as it moves from its origin to its destination – a recommendation that was largely ignored at the time. At that point, BAN decided that the best course of action to take would be to just do it themselves.

The Power of GPS

BAN representatives installed 200 GPS trackers into equipment that was delivered to e-waste recycling stations across the United States. What they found was that a huge volume of devices was being exported out of the United States almost immediately – roughly 65 of the 200 devices made their way out of the country. Of those, BAN estimated that 62 of them were shipped illegally. Most interestingly, it was revealed that e-waste recycling drop-off points were NOT the only source of this problem. Some of the tracked devices originated from Goodwill or other second-hand stores, while a few started their journey at major US retailers. The problem existed across ALL categories.

BAN revealed that Hong Kong has long been one of the major access points for e-waste into the rest of the world and “e-waste facilities” are now cropping up there in greater numbers all the time. Though BAN’s investigation does not solve the problem, it’s unique use of GPS technology sheds valuable light on an issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Not only can it help curb child labor issues around the world, but it can also help make sure that these devices are disposed of properly before they have a chance to cause potentially irreparable damage to the environment at large.

 

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