What Is E-Waste and Why Is It a Problem?

Computer, metal and iron dump # 11
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E-waste describes electronic products and equipment that have reached the end of their life cycle or have lost value to their current owners. When not properly disposed of or recycled, e-waste can emit pollutants and become a serious environmental problem. The increasing rate of e-waste is also concerning, especially in developing nations where the waste is shipped as a cheaper alternative for processing, often resulting in unsafe disposal methods.

In 2019, a United Nations-backed report found that a record 53.6 million tons of electronic waste were thrown away worldwide; that number is expected to increase to 74.7 million tons by 2030. This amount of e-waste generated could fill more than 100 Empire State buildings. The report also found that in 2019 only 17.4% of that e-waste was collected and recycled, which means 82.6% of e-waste was not formally collected or managed in an environmentally friendly manner.

Electronic Waste Definition 

Electronic waste is usually described as the result of end-of-life electric and electronic equipment (EEE) and is also known in the European Union as WEEE, which stands for waste from electrical and electronic equipment. These terms allow us to broaden what may be considered waste. Generated waste can usually be separated into different categories: large household appliances (washer and dryer units, refrigerators), IT equipment (personal laptops or computers), and consumer electronics (cell phones and televisions). Outside of these categories, e-waste can also come from toys, medical devices, and microwaves. 

Electronics Recycling
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The volume of e-waste increases when these products are discarded or not recycled properly, and the negative impacts of the life cycle of these products are usually unknown to the public when the product is discarded.

Another major driver of the problem of e-waste is that many electronic products have a shorter life cycle. For example, according to a study published in Economics Research International, many cell phones and laptops now have a useful life of less than two years. The amount of electronic waste increasing can also be attributed to consumer demands or technological trends. Cell phone and laptop models are released at more frequent intervals and these usually have new models of chargers as well. So the consumer life span of EEE has been decreasing, which increases e-waste.

The release of toxic chemicals like lead, chromium, manganese, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) from e-waste leads to many environmental and health issues. A review published in The Lancet Global Health assessed the relationship between these exposures and health outcomes. The presence of PBDEs affected thyroid function in people working at e-waste dismantling sites and was also associated with adverse birth outcomes like reduced birth weights and spontaneous abortions. Children exposed to lead in e-waste recycling have a higher chance of developing neurocognitive issues, and the presence of chromium, manganese, and nickel affected their lung function as well. These issues are usually related to direct exposure, but the disposal of e-waste exposes people to what is known as e-waste related mixtures (EWMs), which are highly toxic combinations of chemicals usually introduced through inhalation, contact with soil, and even consumption of contaminated food and water.

EWMs are especially hazardous because they can spread far distances. For example, they can reach bodies of water and land through atmospheric movement, can affect soil matter by water runoff, and can contaminate aquatic ecosystems. The release of these chemicals in the environment can lead to widespread ecological exposure and contaminate food sources.

Environmental Concerns

A study published in the Annals of Global Health sought to pinpoint the hazardous byproducts of e-waste and the parts of the electronics they came from. The persistent organic pollutants (POPs) found in electronics can be substances like flame retardants, which can leak into waterways and also contaminate the air, or dielectric fluids, lubricants, and coolants in generators, which bioaccumulate the most in fish and seafood. When exposed to the atmosphere, these substances can increase the greenhouse effect and can contaminate food and even dust particulates.

What Are Persistent Organic Pollutants?

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are organic chemical substances that resist environmental degradation. They are intentionally produced to be used in different industries. POPs include industrial chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are used in electrical equipment, but also include the pesticide DDT. 

A study published in Environmental Monitoring and Assessment looked at improper e-waste recycling in India and found which processes and exact parts of electronics lead to hazardous environmental contamination. For example, the study revealed that cathode ray tubes, which are found in televisions, when broken or the yoke is removed, cause environmental hazards from elements such as lead and barium, which leach into groundwater and release toxic phosphor. Printed circuit boards have to go through the process of desoldering and removal of computer chips, which has the occupational hazard of inhaling tin, lead, brominated dioxin, and mercury. Chips and gold-plated parts are processed through a chemical strip that uses hydrochloric and nitric acid, and the chips are then burned. This may lead to the release of hydrocarbons and brominated substances being discharged directly into rivers or banks.

E-waste also pollutes water when rain dissolves the chemicals and the runoff flows to these areas. These are all hazards associated with e-waste handling and are amplified when the practice is unregulated. In addition to the health risks to humans, these chemicals can acidify rivers and discharge hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

A man works at recycling site in Accra, Ghana
People at work at Agbogbloshie, a huge recycling area in central Accra, Ghana. Everything is recycled and bartered here. Most popular are recycled e-waste and car parts. It has been called an e-waste dumping ground. Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images

According to the Annals of Global Health study, the destination of almost 70% of e-waste is unreported or unknown. It is also necessary to address the issue because marginalized communities end up bearing the negative effects of improper e-waste recycling, as most recycling facilities are located in low-income areas. In those communities, women and children often participate in e-waste recycling as a form of income, and are frequently exposed to hazardous pollutants. Some of the health effects include impaired learning and memory functions, altered thyroid, estrogen, and hormone systems, and neurotoxicity (these are all attributed to exposure to brominated flame retardants).

E-waste also disproportionately affects developing countries, where e-waste is often shipped by developed nations. Almost 75% of the 20 million to 50 million tons of e-waste generated globally is shipped to countries in Africa and Asia. The European Union alone produces around 8.7 million tons of e-waste, and up to 1.3 million tons of that waste is exported to those two continents.

The Basel Convention, which was signed in 1989, aimed to create legislation regarding hazardous waste and the disposal to other countries, but the United States is one of the few nations that have not yet become party to the convention, which means it is legal for the country to ship e-waste to developing nations. Developed countries may do this because of the high labor costs and environmental regulations in their own territories, and due to loopholes within current regulations. But many of these developing countries do not have the right facilities to properly dispose of the waste, which can affect the people and the environment.

A study on e-waste in Chittagong, Bangladesh, found lead, mercury, polybrominated flame retardants, and other chemicals commonly associated with leakage from electronics in the soil. The evaporation and leakage from these substances in dumping sites contaminate the natural resources in the surrounding areas. People who work at the sites or live in the area are directly affected, but a much larger segment of the population is indirectly affected through the food chain and soil quality.

 E-Waste Recycling

Technological Waste
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The recycling process for electronics can be challenging because of the various materials within one device. The best way to dispose of e-waste is through authorized agencies or organizations. In addition to your local e-waste services, you may find recyclers through the Institute of Recycling Industries or the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling in the United States. In Europe, there is the European Electronics Recyclers Association.

How to Reduce E-Waste

According to Harvard University, a few simple measures can help minimize the amount of electronic waste you produce: 

  • Re-evaluate your purchases. Ask yourself if you really need that new device.
  • Extend the life cycle of your electronics through extra precautions like protective cases and timely maintenance.
  • Choose environmentally friendly electronics and appliances. Research what companies will take your electronic device at its end of life.
  • Donate our used appliances and devices.
  • Recycle your devices.
View Article Sources
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