E-waste accounts for 20-50 million tons of waste every year, making it the fastest growing component of waste worldwide. E-waste is full of toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. These chemicals, when not disposed of properly, make their way into water, soil, and the atmosphere, which in turn harms the environment while posing a threat to human health. Disposing of e-waste is expensive because of its high toxicity, especially in industrialized countries with stringent disposal laws. To avoid the cost, these nations sell e-waste to developing nations where environmental standards are relaxed or non-existent. Because most developing countries lack the infrastructure or capacity to dispose of these chemicals in a safe way, the chemicals are released into the environment. E-waste is often dumped into landfills or incinerated, both of which release toxic chemicals. Reuse and recycling are slightly better options, but often the electronics are obsolete, or if they can be recycled, workers are often exposed to the health risks of the junk yards where recycling occurs.
The amount of e-waste generated is relatively small compared to the total amount of waste generated by humans, but the rate of generating e-waste is increasing faster than any other waste stream, about 2-3 times faster in fact. This is because as technology advances more quickly, people throw away obsolete electronics more rabidly as well.
Sometimes, depending on the chemicals used in the electronics, this e-waste can be particularly hazardous by releasing these chemicals into the environment.
E-waste represents 2% of America’s trash in landfills, and equals 70% of overall toxic waste. Also the extreme amount of lead in electronics causes damage in the central and peripheral nervous systems, the blood and the kidneys. More information can be found at the website provided.
While the issue of e-waste may be somewhat sensationalized in the media relative to its importance to the overall solid waste management picture, it remains a major challenge and an area of continued focus for improvement due to the unique challenges posed by electronics recycling and disposal.
The challenges of managing e-waste are similar to those seen elsewhere in the recycling sector, where municipal programs are vulnerable to shocks in commodity prices and may be forced by market conditions to transport waste long distances, including to other countries, while e-waste adds the additional challenge of managing complex products that often contain toxic materials such as arsenic and those that may pose hazards in processing facilities such as beryllium. Several protocols have emerged to certify e-waste programs as “green” and people-friendly, such as the Basel Action Network’s (BAN) e-Stewards program that has the support of many electronics industry stakeholders (see citation #1).
While the e-Stewards program and the attention focused on e-waste at both the local and international levels represents a positive step forward for the safe recovery of materials from e-scrap, much progress remains to be made in ensuring that the ever-growing quantity of waste produced by our electronic culture does not end up poisoning whoever ends up responsible for managing it, be they domestic or foreign. The European Union has taken aggressive steps in demanding its member states examine and remedy problems with the back end of its electronics supply chain (see citation #2), but concerns remain surrounding illegal waste export and dumping as well as ways of improving the existing legal framework for minimizing, and properly managing, discarded electronics.
There are many reasons why e-waste is such a big problem.Notably, e-waste can contain toxic chemicals like lead, mercury, or cadmium. Did you know that old CRT TVs and computer monitors (the bulkier types) can contain up to 8 pounds of lead? These chemicals can pollute our air, water, and earth and increase cancer rates, cause birth defects, and cause reproductive problems.
It is also a growing problem. Think about how often a new cell phone, laptop, or iPad comes out. How many people have to have the latest thing?
Quite a few electronics recycling companies will take these old or broken electronics and dump them in a landfill or send them to a developing country (look up Guiyu, China). That is why it’s important to research your e-waste recyclers and find one who is responsible (preferably one who is certified by e-Stewards). If you’re in California, give All Green Electronics Recycling a try. They recycle responsibly and for free.
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