We Threw Military Electronics in the Trash—China Sold Them Back to Us


While many hawkish lawmakers may not want to hear it, the military brass is getting serious about environmental threats to national security. Climate change is a clear threat to global security, but so are less obvious threats from a source where you might not expect it.

Recycling electronic waste—or “e-waste,” the discarded gizmos, gadgets and machinery we use in our contemporary lives — is an issue near and dear to the hearts of environmentalists and eggheads alike. But it’s also a growing concern to military officers and some of America’s crustiest politicians—hardly the tree-hugging types.
Our recycling policies not only fuel conflict in the developing world, but they help endanger sensitive military technology—while harming the health of American troops and locals abroad.

Safer and saner waste and recycling policies at home and overseas, in the military and among civilians can make for a more peaceful world.

Despite the fact that much of what constitutes e-waste has a great deal of value if properly recovered, the United States ships a large proportion of it—perhaps as much as 80 percent—to developing countries where it’s dumped on populations for “processing” in crude, informal scrap operations.

Much of this material is shipped to West Africa. At one e-waste operation in Ghana, salvage crews use open fires to burn plastic off copper wires and loosen components from circuit boards. These toxic chemicals end up in the environment.

This humanitarian threat, however, is not what specifically worries American military experts. A bigger threat in their estimation is the fact that China is another major recipient of export-dumped e-waste.

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