TECH
06/27/2016 14:55 EDT | Updated 06/28/2016 18:48 EDT

Some Computers Take A Horrible Journey After They're 'Recycled'

This isn't good.

Ken Christensen, KCTS/EarthFix via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Old computers piled in a junkyard in rural Hong Kong.

A curious thing happens to some gadgets when it's time for them to die.

Even if you do the right thing and bring them to a recycling center for disposal, they might take a twisted -- and dangerous -- path to their final resting place. That's because recycling companies in the United States aren't obligated to handle electronic waste responsibly, and some opt to export it to junkyards around the world. Once there, equipment is broken down and harvested of valuable components -- a process sometimes handled by undocumented workers at great personal risk.

The Basel Action Network, a nonprofit group fighting against toxic exports, recently unveiled research detailing how this happens. Until the law changes in the United States, your options for responsible electronics disposal are severely limited.

Here's what can happen to your old gear today:

  • Ken Christensen, KCTS/EarthFix via Flicker (CC BY 2.0)
    You've decided it's time to get rid of your old computer equipment -- a monitor, laptop, smartphone, keyboard, whatever.
  • Katie Campbell, KCTS/EarthFix via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
    You'll probably want to bring that gear to a recycling company. Here, a woman drops off old hardware at Interconnection, a recycler in Seattle.
  • Katie Campbell, KCTS/EarthFix via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
    The Basel Action Network, an American nonprofit dedicated to reducing the export of toxic waste, decided to track what can actually happen to gear once it gets dropped off at a recycling facility.
  • Katie Campbell, KCTS/EarthFix via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
    They took battery-powered GPS tracking devices...
  • Ken Christensen, KCTS/EarthFix via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
    ...and installed them within old computer equipment that was meant to be recycled. Then, they dropped off the equipment at a number of facilities across the U.S.
  • Ken Christensen, KCTS/EarthFix via Flicker (CC BY 2.0)
    Jim Puckett, head of the Basel Action Network, tracks the whereabouts of the hardware.
  • MIT Senseable City Lab
    The Basel Action Network found that when you drop equipment off at U.S. recyclers, if often ends up being exported elsewhere. The nonprofit partnered with the MIT Senseable City Lab to create an interactive map tool showing how this happens.
  • MIT Senseable City Lab
    Computer screens from Wapakoneta, Ohio, wound up in Hong Kong, where undocumented workers smash apart equipment in dangerous environments.
  • Katie Campbell, KCTS/EarthFix via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
    Most countries abide by a treaty known as the Basel Convention when exporting toxic e-waste, requiring them to seek permission from the importing country's government. The United States hasn't ratified the Basel Convention, so "recyclers" can ship equipment overseas without consequence to their business.
  • Katie Campbell, KCTS/EarthFix via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
    This is a junkyard in rural Hong Kong.
  • Katie Campbell, EarthFix/KCTS via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
    Laborers dismantle equipment here in hopes of reselling valuable components. It's not safe work.
  • Katie Campbell, KCTS/EarthFix via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
    The Basel Action Network identified old, dismantled printers at this site. Material found in printer toner can contribute to cancer risk.
  • Katie Campbell, KCTS/EarthFix via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
    Here are white tubes from LCD screens. These contain mercury, which is liable to cause all sorts of severe health problems.
  • Katie Campbell, KCTS/EarthFix via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
    Another glance at these white tubes. Workers at these junkyards don't have much in terms of safety gear.