Staples, Samsung support tighter e-waste standards

Apple introduced eight iPhones in the last six years. Smartphone makers such as Samsung, Nokia and LG flaunt their new devices as well. Have you fallen for the near-annual come-ons? Answer by going to that drawer where you have laid to rest all your fond hardware memories -- your once beloved Blackberry and first iPhone. They no longer look as gorgeous as they once did, do they?

You know you should probably recycle them, along with the outdated laptops or PCs in the closet and the old clunker TV in the garage. But if you were to recycle them, where would they go? And what would happen to all your contacts, photos and 10 years' worth of past appointments and private mail sitting on those devices? Didn't you hear somewhere that recyclers simply ship old electronics off to developing countries? Maybe it's better just to slip them in the trash. Who will know?

We have been seduced. We have fallen. Our lust for the newest technology has turned too many of us into hardware addicts. And then, after the affair is over, the uncertainty of how to terminate the relationship has turned us into hardware hoarders or secret dumpers. It's not very responsible, not very safe, and not very secure.

I fully understand the quandary. My 2002 film "Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia" [video] first exposed the shameful fact that many of our nation's electronics recyclers are mere collectors and shippers that export our old electronics to China with disastrous environmental and human health consequences. I was afraid of finding some of my own equipment there in the piles of electronic rubble.

In 2005, I discovered a similar scandal in West Africa. In 2008, the situation was even worse when I returned to China with Scott Pelley of CBS's "60 Minutes" to film their award-winning episode "The Electronic Wasteland" [video]. And this year in June, more than 10 years after our cameras first exposed the digital dump, I retraced my steps in Guangdong Province, China. To my dismay, I found it's still very much ground zero for the West's hardware infidelities, the digital STDs of our time: toxic electronic waste. This cyber-age nightmare is sadly spreading all over the world, to India, Vietnam, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana and practically every other low-wage country with a desperate workforce and lax environmental and worker protections.

This trade in toxic electronic scrap is a direct violation of international laws laid out in a United Nations' treaty known as the Basel Convention, designed to prevent the toxic effluent of the affluent from victimizing developing countries. However, the United States is the sole developed industrialized country that refuses to recognize the Basel Convention.

Three years ago, in response to this continuing toxic e-waste tide and in an effort to provide the public and businesses with a socially and environmentally responsible treatment for our hardware addiction, the e-Stewards certification program was created. E-Stewards is quite simply a protection against the ubiquitous fake recyclers, which persist in loading up sea-going containers with old phones, TVs and computers -- all in the good name of recycling -- and shipping them off to China or Africa, out of your sight and out of your mind.

And now, on the occasion of the release of the second version of the e-Stewards Standard, over 125 recycling facilities have been certified in North America, and the program is poised to expand around the globe. It is endorsed by over 70 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace; several major cities such as San Francisco and Seattle; and over 60 major corporations, including Bloomberg, Boeing, Alcoa, Bank of America, Well Fargo, Iron Mountain, Samsung and LG. Furthermore, the office supply company Staples now ensures that obsolete electronics taken to any of their retail locations will be processed only by certified e-Stewards recyclers, making it more convenient than ever to recycle responsibly.

Beyond forbidding the export of hazardous electronic waste in accordance with international law, the new e-Stewards Standard Version 2.0 also requires the most rigorous provisions to ensure that customer data is always properly erased and kept secure. It also mandates fair labor practices such as not allowing child or prison labor. And it requires that workplace hazards such as lead exposure are detected and minimized.

As the latest version is released, we can all do our part by insisting on only using certified e-Stewards recyclers; knowing if our local e-waste collection event, trash haulers or buy-back programs are using certified e-Stewards recyclers; and talking to our workplace administrators about what they are doing with all old electronics.

A full cure for our electronics consumer addiction may not be found overnight, but at least we can keep our compulsions from poisoning others wherever they live on this hotwired planet. It's time to remember as far as planet Earth is concerned, a smartphone without a smart user is a doomed relationship.

E-waste image by imging via Shutterstock.com.