The never-ending chase for the latest technology has made electronics waste the world’s fastest-growing solid-waste stream. You read that correctly. Discarded old computers, monitors, televisions, stereos, copiers, printers, fax machines, cellphones, DVD players, cameras, batteries, and many other electronic devices - all known as e-waste - are creating a fast-growing surplus of electronic waste around the globe.
In the United States, only an estimated 15-20% of e-waste is recycled. The rest ends up incinerated or in landfills. That’s bad news because e-waste can contain harmful materials like mercury and beryllium that pose many environmental and health risks. And the problem is only growing. According to some estimates, the amount of e-waste being produced could rise by as much as 500% over the next decade in certain countries.
What’s so dangerous about e-waste?
Cell phones and most electronics contain toxic materials such as lead, zinc, nickel, flame retardants, barium, and chromium. If released into the environment, these chemicals can cause damage to human blood, kidneys, as well as to the central and peripheral nervous systems.
When e-waste is incinerated, toxic and dangerous chemicals such as dioxins are released into the environment. But dumping e-waste into landfills isn’t much better. There, toxic materials seep into groundwater, affecting local populations and sea animals. In a study of the residents of Guiyu, China, home to the world’s largest e-waste disposal site, many people exhibited substantial digestive, neurological, respiratory and bone problems.
With the problem only expected to grow in the coming years, governments need to begin creating mechanisms for the safe recycling of electronic products. Properly carried out, e-waste recycling has the power to greatly reduce the leakage of toxic materials into the environment and mitigate the harm to both humans and animals. For many products, technical solutions for safe recycling already exist, but legal and logistical issues persist.
Another potential solution is to protect the technology we use so that we can reduce the frequency with which we need to replace it. Every hour alone, 5,761 cell phone screens crack! Investing in protective cases and screen guards can significantly increase the lifespan of our devices, saving us money and reducing our environmental impact.
It’s time we start taking the problem of e-waste seriously!