Electronic waste refers to carelessly discarded, excess, or out of order electronic devices. This definition is vague and there is still debate as to whether items such as broken fridges and other household appliances should be included under e-wastes.
However, the widely accepted definition includes wastes arising from computers, old electronic devices such as phones (both fixed and mobile) and entertainment gadgets, television sets, computer monitors, refrigerators, and other electronic communication devices. Poor disposal of e-wastes poses several risks to human health and environmental quality as they contain noxious metallic elements known to cause serious health complications such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and beryllium.
When the wastes are buried in landfills, toxic constituents can infiltrate into water systems and the soil, and finally reach our bodies. Should we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of technology? There has been a growing call for industry players to effect proper disposal of e-wastes, or to find alternative uses of the wastes, such as recycling and separating the components of the electronic devices for use in various industrial processes.
Because I wanted to inform readers of remedies to poor disposal of e-wastes such as recycling, consumer awareness efforts and adopting safe manufacturing techniques. Recycling is the best approach to tackling threats arising from e-wastes owing to several advantages.
Because I wanted to emphasize on the benefits that we can get by recycling electronic devices rather than discarding them haphazardly. This method entails using the old items for other purposes instead of discarding them.
Because I wanted to highlight the severe health complications that arise from poor disposal of e-wastes, the complications include chronic damage to the nervous system, renal dysfunction, lung cancer, kidney and liver damage and even brain damage.
Why are we not aware of the dangers of disposing electronic wastes and keep insisting that these wastes have no use at all? Of late, the issue of electronic waste (e-waste) disposal has become a controversial issue all over the world owing to the widespread use and electronic technologies such as computers, television and CRTs (Morgan, para. 1).
The rate at which people use and discard electronic devices is alarming, shockingly, few people have knowledge of how the devices we use regularly can be harmful once they become obsolete. When shall we all wake up to the reality of poor disposal of e-wastes? Should we wait until all of our water systems and soil are contaminated with heavy metals so that we can take action? Sadly, it will be too late and time for action is now.
Today, every home uses at least one electronic device and the television, computer and mobile phones are the most common. With increasing ease of access or ownership of these items, partly attributed to decrease in cost and the increasingly digitized world, the volume of e-waste is set to increase rapidly and if appropriate measures are not taken urgently, these wastes may reach unmanageable levels.
On a positive note, various organizations and environmental protection agencies have recognized the dangers of e-wastes and have started increasing public awareness on this issue, besides pushing public and private institutions to participate actively in recycling and properly dispose of electronic wastes.
There are several strategies that can be used to manage electronic wastes, these include recycling, consumer awareness efforts and adopting safe manufacturing techniques. However, recycling offers the best option and ensures that the toxic material does not end up in the environment.
According to the blog “The Benefits of Your Electronic Recycling” on Avalanche Technology’s website, one blogger discusses how recycling electronic technology is the best way to prevent environmental pollution and health complications arising from these wastes.
Regardless of how various electronic technologies make a huge difference in the efficiency and speed of our lives as users, lack of awareness on how to dispose of these items can make the risk from electronic technology grow bigger and bigger.
One strategy that has been identified as an effective to this rising problem is recycling. This involves reuse, shredding, and donation of obsolete electronic equipment. Recycling undergoes in several stages, beginning with collection, brokering, disassembling, fixing or recycling parts of the equipment. The process is sometimes known as e-cycling (recycling of e-wastes).
While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not forbid households from dumping their electronic equipment, recycling them can reduce contamination of the environment. The EPA further states there are more than 40 million excess computers in the US alone, these will be discarded in the next few years and unless proper recycling plans are put underway, we may be staring at a very bleak future.
Already, several legislation have been enacted around the world that requires companies to recycle their products, this, it is argued, will motivate the companies to use fewer components in the production process, produce durable products, and use safer, more efficient recycling methods (Yuan et al, pp. 660).
E-wastes can provide an important source of raw materials in the manufacture of other equipment if they are recycled properly. For example, a sewing machine contains mercury which can be retrieved and used in other industrial processes, for example, manufacture of thermometers.
Since recycling also includes donation of used equipment, the process helps in availing second hand electronic devices at lower costs. Today, many western countries donate computers to developing countries, or sell them at lower costs and this has the effects of putting these developing countries at a higher level on the application of technology.
Electronic wastes contain precious elements such as gold, lead and copper. These valuable elements can be retrieved from disassembled e-wastes and reused in other equipment. However, the wastes also contain toxic elements such as lead, cadmium, chromium, and radioactive elements (Mayfield, para. 7).
When e-wastes are buried in landfills, the toxic elements can leach into underground water and later reach surface water systems such as rivers and lakes from which they can enter our body if the water is not adequately purified. The toxic elements may also leach into the soil and enter our body through agricultural products.
These elements are associated with serious health complications such as chronic damage to the nervous system, renal dysfunction, lung cancer, kidney and liver damage and even brain damage. Therefore, mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that these e-wastes are handled in the right manner. Recycling ensures that toxic elements from electronic wastes do not reach the soil and water systems.
While recycling is a cheap alternative for preventing environmental contamination, it has come under heavy criticism from various stakeholders. Part of the criticism arises from the fact that recycling will raise a firm’s waste management expenses and obstructs creativity from high-tech firms.
Critics also say that recycling could unintentionally cause damage to the environment as it leads to accumulation of electronic materials that will eventually have to be discarded. They also say that e-wastes do not constitute a significant portion of total wastes, for instance, a study revealed that barely 4% of waste arises from electronic equipment in Europe. Hence, diversion of more funds to implement undertakes management activities will only serve to benefit the companies and not the public (Hicks et al, 2005).
While writing on the Science section of Wired Magazine, Kendra Mayfield (para. 8) mentions that “e-waste collected in the United States for recycling is exported … workers … are handling toxic chemicals that can pose serious health problems”. This statement stems from the fact that recycling of e-wastes, particularly the disassembly process, is very risky to the workers as they are exposed to the heavy metals present in most of the equipment.
This problem can worsen if workers do not wear protective gear. It is costly too since the percentage of the initial cost recovered after recycling can be as low as 1-5%. A final objection is that in the process of donating used computers to developing countries, companies are, in essence, dumping their wastes into these countries. Studies show that close to 200,000 tons of e-wastes are exported into developing countries.
Obsolete electronic equipment have rapidly increased in volume around the world due to technological advancements and low initial costs. The rapid growth of e-wastes has had serious negative impacts on our environment since the wastes contain carcinogenic and toxic elements.
Although several measures have been identified, recycling has been noted as the most effective method of managing electronic wastes. Recycling can motivate the companies to use fewer components in the production process, produce durable products, and use safer, more efficient recycling methods. Recycling can also provide raw materials cheaply, avail second hand electronic devices at lower costs to developing countries, and they contain valuable elements.
Hicks, Chrlotte, Dietmara, Rolf, and Eugsterb, Martin. The recycling and disposal of electrical and electronic waste in China—legislative and market responses. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 25 (5), 2005, 459–471
Mayfield, Kendra. E-Waste: Dark Side of Digital Age. Wired Magazine, January 10, 2003. Web. May 14, 2011. < http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2003/01/57151 >
Morgan, Russell. Tips and Tricks for Recycling Old Computers. Aug 21, 2006. Web. May 14, 2011. < from http://www.smartbiz.com/article/articleprint/1525/-1/58 >
Yuan, Chris, Zhang, Hong C., McKenna, Gregory, Korzeniewski, Carol, and Li, Jianzhi.
Experimental Studies on Cryogenic Recycling of Printed Circuit Board. International Journal of Advanced Manufacturing Technology, Vol. 34, 2007, pp. 657-666.