Electronic waste has been accumulating rapidly since the onset of the high tech boom of the early 1990s. While definitions of e-waste vary, the term typically refers to any electrically wired device that is no longer of use to the consumer. Whether its energy source is depleted, it has become outdated, or it is simply broken beyond repair, an electronic waste item cannot be reused in any way and must be recycled or disposed. Examples of e-waste might include the following discarded items: batteries, mobile phones, microchips, monitors, televisions, computer components, motherboards, circuit boards, refrigerators, or industrial electronic waste.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, nearly 50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated worldwide each year. The recycling and disposal of this fast growing mountain of e-waste should be a top concern of electronic manufacturers, environmental policymakers, and consumers. However, the task is fraught with challenges. Since few countries have adequate, safe, or appropriate means of processing e-waste in place, electronic waste products typically end up in scrap heaps in private homes, buried in waste collection sites, processed in waste plants, or exported out to developing nations for recycling and disposal.
Another challenge is the sensitive chemical nature of e-waste. Since the production of electronic equipment often involves the use of toxic chemicals and hazardous substances, anyone who handles its waste faces serious health and environmental risks. These harmful substances may include: mercury, which causes brain damage; beryllium, which causes lung cancer; chromium, which damages DNA; or lead, which threatens the blood, kidneys, and nervous and reproductive systems.
Formal e-waste processing usually involves the dismantling of equipment into smaller parts; afterwards, material is shredded and sorted for sale. In developing countries, dumped e-waste often ends up in the hands of migrant scavengers or factory workers who must deal with the toxicity of e-waste firsthand. Recycling in this case begins with workers stripping equipment for precious metals and reusable parts by hand. Following this, some methods have included swirling parts around in industrial acids in order to extract precious metals like gold, silver, or copper existing in trace amounts. Many developing nations even burn their waste as a means of disposal, generating toxic air particles sure to cause respiratory irritation.
With improper disposal, toxins will end up airborne or, if public sanitation is lacking as it is in many developing nations, handlers may dispose of toxic e-waste in dumps, by latrines, or near rivers. In these instances, entire communities can suffer the consequences of water and soil contamination. In Guiyu, China (one of the biggest e-waste dumping sites in the world), water has been undrinkable for years because of the contamination that has resulted from toxic dumping. Sadly, it is developing and often rural countries like China as well as India, Nigeria, and Cambodia that receive the bulk of e-waste exports. Already poor and often without means of challenging the environmental burdens placed upon them, these people and their local environments bear the load of much of the world’s e-waste.
Since environmental and work regulations are so much looser in the developing world, the costs of recycling and disposing of electronic waste are significantly lower in importing countries than they are in major e-waste culprits like the United States, Sweden, and Germany. The diffusion of dangerous e-waste away from developed countries toward developing ones shifts an ugly burden toward the world’s poor. Countries like Cambodia will willingly absorb any opportunity for income generation but have little to say about the environmental and health consequences they must also absorb in the process.
What Can Be Done?
Though it seems difficult to quantify the health and environmental impact of e-waste now, overflowing dump yards and contaminated natural resources may soon provide impetus for change. Progress can be made at every step of an electronic footprint, from engineering to consumption to disposal. Fortunately, the pressure is on at all stages of the waste-generating process to change behaviors and lessen the environmental harm of electronics and e-waste.
Engineering and design teams, for starters, can innovate to create more eco-friendly electronics. Smart, clean design can lead to less toxic, more easily recyclable electronics. Also, recycling used equipment back to companies can require companies to be more conscious about their production and lessen the problem of stray e-waste in households and landfills. On a policy level, governments are increasingly invested in evening out the slippery economic slope that encourages the export of e-waste to developing nations. In 1992, over 160 countries ratified the Basel Convention, a global environmental agreement regulating the shipment and disposal of waste. The European Union has adopted stringent policies on electronic waste, while Canada and states like California in the United States have taken the lead in facing e-waste head on through drop-off events and strict regulations on manufacturers of electronics.
And what can you do? All of us can commit to being more responsible consumers of electronics. We can more thoughtfully approach whether we really need to upgrade to new electronic gadgets, and we can be especially conscious about the ecofriendliness of other electronic purchases like appliances. Consumers also have the option and the obligation to demonstrate responsible patronage. When recycling, make sure to support recyclers who don’t export e-waste and who maintain high environmental and health standards in treating electronic waste. Avoid purchasing electronics with toxic components and invest in responsible, clean design. You can also support legislation in your state or country making companies responsible for managing electronic recycling programs.
E-waste will persist as an environmental problem, but a good deal can be done to lessen the effects it has on the environment and on people’s health. By understanding the journey of electronic goods from the design table to the processing plant, PEPY’s hope is that we all become a bit more aware of our own electronic footprint and do our part to reduce e-waste.