Electronic waste, otherwise known as “e-waste,” is the garbage generated from the technology industry. E-waste is a commonly used catch-all term for all trashed electronics, but the EPA considers e-waste to be the subcategory of discarded tech that still has valuable materials to be recycled. However, once valuable parts make it to a landfill, they cannot be recovered. As much as 80% of e-waste is exported to West Africa and China where parts are broken down and cultivated for resale as counterfeit. A popular counterfeit product produced from the e-waste black market is microchips. Those microchips and other counterfeit tech products cycle into mainstream markets and sold for top dollar. Alarmingly, it even cycles into U.S. military equipment.
The military recognizes this problem but still suffers from it. An estimated 15% of all replacement parts the military uses for its equipment, including weapons and vehicles, contains counterfeit products. The military is placed in an extremely vulnerable position for system malfunctions because of this. Between 2007-2010, U.S. Customs retrieved 5.6 million counterfeit microchips intended for military contractors and commercial airlines.
“If [those counterfeit chips had been] installed in a missile’s guidance system, such missile would either not function at all or would likely not proceed to its intended target, and would likely strike a completely unintended destination.”
–Keith Avery, a senior engineer at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory
Counterfeit microchips could completely derail a mission and endanger innocents. As e-waste skyrockets, preventing counterfeit products from being used in military equipment will only become more challenging.
Not only does e-waste potentially impede U.S. military readiness, it also can have grave impacts on people and the environment. The recycling of e-waste products in developing countries have become the main source of income for many lower income communities, but improper methods of harvesting valuable materials is extremely hazardous. Constant interaction with toxic fumes from burning cables, run-off from landfills filled with e-waste, and harmful heavy metals such as lead and arsenic leaching into the soil are highly correlated with extreme health risks. This includes kidney damage, liver damage, skin disorders, miscarriages, cancer, and more. The people unsafely recycling tech materials are aware of these health risks, but because it is their main source of income they are left with no other choice but to work in unsafe conditions. In addition to direct health consequences, e-waste can negatively impact food security. As previously mentioned, hazardous materials often seep into soil. This can make agricultural produce unsafe to eat or destroy it all together. This plunges the workers and community members even further into the poverty cycle.
With the tech industry continuing to flourish, this problem may only get worse if e-waste is improperly disposed of. Concerns about military readiness regarding technology date back as far as 60 years ago when the DoD launched the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). While DARPA researches many topics, they are also investigating new methods on how to identify whether microchips are counterfeited. Though their Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense (SHIELD) program, DARPA plans to install extremely small components into microchips called “dielets” that would ensure legitimacy of non-counterfeit products. SHIELD states, “Proposed dielets should contain a full encryption engine, sensors to detect tampering and would readily affix to today’s electronic components such as microchips.” The help of dielets will assist officials in determining the safety and quality of microchips before military use.
In addition to DARPA’s SHEILD program, another solution would be to stop exporting e-waste from the United States. Bottom line, the e-waste black market could jeopardize the readiness of the U.S. military and has negative health impacts on people. With annual amounts of domestic e-waste totaling upwards of 2 million tons, there needs to be some form of intervention. The EPA estimates about 25% of e-waste is recycled, but with more support and funding discarded tech could be safely recycled on U.S. soil, which may result in job opportunities. The U.S. needs common sense recycling laws for discarded tech to protect the communities processing the waste and our military equipment and installations.