Before Earth Week falls too far from our minds, the issue of electronic waste deserves a second look. That’s right, electronic waste: the left-over cell phones (whose drawer doesn’t contain one or two retired phones?), broken laptops (so easily shoved to the side), old TVs and over-played iPods. If all of these sources of e-waste were totaled, the UN Environment Programme estimates that they reach about 50 million tons a year worldwide. This is a shocking number now, but with the average lifetime of electronics decreasing as technological advancements occur more frequently, the accumulation of this waste is rapidly accelerating. It might not seem like those discarded slim, sleek cell phones we carry around would amount to a large problem, but with four out of five people in the United States owning a cell phone and cell phones replaced on average every 12 months, those old phones stack up fast. It is no wonder that e-waste is the fastest growing component of solid waste in this country.

These trashed electronics contain precious metals that can be easily recovered when they are properly recycled. In fact, organizations such as the Belgian company Umicore make extracting precious metals such as silver, copper, platinum and gold contained in unwanted cell phones, computers and televisions into a business. Using a state-of-the-art smelter and refinery, Umicore is able to safely extract and process these metals for use in the manufacture of new electronics. However, most e-waste also contains materials such as cadmium, lead, chromium and mercury that can become hazardous when electronic products are improperly disposed by being dumped in landfills and incinerated, exposing their carcinogenic contents to the surrounding environment.

Knowing the sheer amount of electronic waste citizens of the United States generate every year, an obvious question is where all these discarded products go. What students may not be aware of is the global reach of electronic waste. Most of these computers don’t end up in our landfills, but in urban piles of electronic waste that literally make mountains in the poorest, most polluted slums of the developing world. Nations like India, Thailand, Nigeria, China and the Philippines receive millions of old computers and other electronic waste every year from unscrupulous, domestic recyclers and secondhand markets. It is no exaggeration to state that children are putting their lives in immediate risk by scavenging these piles of e-waste for precious metals in order to scrap together an income. Women and children are disproportionately at risk for exposure to cancer-causing toxins because they are supplementing the head-of-household’s wages through this dirty work.

There are many intelligent and environmentally conscious students on this campus. Georgetown should be a leader, then, in the effort to responsibly dispose of and recycle e-waste. As we increasingly use technology as part of our education, we need to be increasingly aware of our responsibility to the environment and to the health of citizens in developing nations who are the ultimate “benefactors” of the electronic age. So what can Georgetown students do?

First, they can take advantage of the many take-back programs that computer and electronics manufacturers offer for their products. It requires nothing more than a phone call or an e-mail request to have companies such as Apple dispose of your old laptops and iPods. Second, students can petition the school to continue to grow and raise awareness of Georgetown’s electronics recycling program. College administrations hold tremendous power to implement e-waste recycling, as such administrations host and educate millions of computer-wielding, iPod-blasting students each year. Founded this past semester, our Georgetown group, the rE-cycle Team, has been working with groups like Eco-Action, Apple and Campus Climate Challenge to raise awareness about e-waste recycling. Off campus, we are actively lobbying members of Congress and the Senate to support grant money for colleges that would allow them to implement electronic waste recycling programs on campuses across the country. It will take congressional action to spur campus initiatives, but we feel this goal is within reach, and only with the help and advocacy of our fellow Hoyas.

Going “green” has a different meaning today than it has in the past. Preserving the environment once meant that trees must be planted, rivers must be cleared and trash must be recycled. Now, going green extends to all the new gadgets we have grown to depend on to do everything from checking the latest Hoya scores to writing a thesis. As the end of the year and moving out approaches, we urge you to think twice before chucking that old TV or extra computer in the dumpster outside your dorm. Rapidly advancing technology is a hallmark of our generation and properly disposing of the old technology should be too.

Amalia Aruda is a junior in the College. Fred Lestina is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Irnande Altema, Clare Murphy and Surili Sutaria are second year graduate students in the Biomedical Sciences program. They are all members of the rE-cycle Team of Georgetown

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