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E-Waste: A Big Problem Needing Bigger Solutions

 Nov 14, 2018    Hot news  e waste

In 1982, a family in the US bought a microwave oven. In 2012, thirty years later, the microwave was still working. In 2017, a young lady purchased an iPhone upgrade and a protective case. Four months later, with a splintered screen from a few bounces on the floor, the same young lady must purchase a new phone.

This anecdote makes a vital point about electronics in this fast-moving technology age: they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

It also raises an important question: what should we do with electronic devices we don’t use anymore?

Let’s dive deeper into the problematic issue of e-waste.

What is E-Waste?

Dead electronics are the world’s fastest-growing source of waste, and the United States creates more e-waste than any other country. The toxic materials in electronics, like mercury and lead, can harm people and the environment. Americans recycle about 50,000 dump trucks full of electronics every year.

Just how much e-waste is being created?

Research suggests an estimated 1.5 billion cell phones were purchased in 2017, which is around one for every five people on the planet. Each will ultimately reach the end of its lifespan and become electronic waste. The United Nations found that 44.7 million tons of e-waste was created in 2016, and only 20% of it properly eliminated.

In the United States, there are as many televisions as there are people. That is a lot of electronics that will eventually be reduced to e-waste. And while this technology is most likely changing our lives for the better, electronics often malfunction, and unlike the 30-year-old mixer that refuses to die, new technology breaks more quickly.

Throwing things out instead of repairing them has far-reaching consequences for consumers and the environment.

Electronic Pollution

Not only will millions of electronics be purchased each year, they will inevitably create a tide of hazardous “e-waste” that will be dumped illegally in developing countries.

The volume of electronic waste around the globe is projected to grow by 33% in the near future. In recent years, nearly 50 million tons of e-waste was produced worldwide – or nearly 15 pounds per person on earth. This e-waste contains hundreds of different materials and toxic substances like lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and flame retardants.

After settling in a landfill, the toxic substances seep into the environment, contaminating land, air, and water. When these devices are dismantled in primitive conditions, people who work there suffer frequently from a range of illnesses.

According to the UN, e-waste is now the world’s most rapidly growing waste source. China generated 11.1 million tons last year and the US 10 million tons.

While exporting castoff goods to poor countries is legal if they can be reused, there are tons of e-waste being sent to Asia or Africa under false pretenses. And no one is keeping track of how much e-waste is actually being spread across the continents.

A study from MIT found that the US only recycled 66% of its millions of discarded computers, monitors, TVs and mobile phones in 2010. The devices not recycled ended up in Hong Kong, Latin American, and the Caribbean.

As newer phone models and other upgraded products are flooding the market, the remainder end up in landfills. These phones are made of precious metals. The circuit boards use gold, copper, beryllium, zinc, and tantalum; the coatings include lead and the batteries are lithium based.

But, less than 10% of phones are being mined for their components. This will eventually lead to shortages of these rare, earth minerals.

Businessmen and manufacturers have recognized the issue and began using tracking systems to gauge how far their e-waste goes. One recycled television, embedded with a satellite tracking device, was bought by a London-based e-waste dealer. That television made a 4,500 mile journey from shipping docks in the UK to the huge Alaba electronics market in Lagos, Nigeria.

The recycling industry has become a haven for e-waste exporters, and thousands of devices end up in developing nations. What cannot be repaired is dumped and people risk their lives picking through the rubbish heaps of electronics in an ever-worsening state of decay.

In Great Britain, nearly 500,000 tons of e-waste goes unaccounted for every year. Great Britain’s e-waste equipment laws place a responsibility on manufacturers to meet the environmental costs of their e-waste. But hazardous waste is being illegally exported as part of an e-waste black market worth millions.

And e-waste isn’t limited to our digital devices. Even so-called green technology adds to the e-waste profile. Solar panels contain toxic metals that can damage the human nervous system, and chromium and cadmium, which are confirmed carcinogens. These toxins are known to leach out of e-waste dumps into water supplies. It may be time for humans to return to the traditional method of repairing broken items instead of replacing them.

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