Today, electronics are a normal aspect of life. In fact, electronic technology is practically required to live comfortably and to work efficiently at the developed world’s standards. New and improved technology appears every single year, like Apple’s iPhone upgrades or the ever expanding Samsung Galaxy phone/tablet line. While those of us living in a consumer economy willingly buy the latest gadgets year after year, how often do we think about what happens to our old equipment?
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a modern problem that takes a toll on both the environment and on humanity. This “high-tech trash” includes, but is not limited to, televisions, computer monitors, keyboards, mice, processors (CPUs), printers, scanners, fax machines, pocket computers (PDAs), walkie-talkies, baby monitors, certain kinds of watches, and cell phones. Anything digital that is no longer being used qualifies as e-waste. Trash of this sort is actually the most detrimental, in regards to both its growth rate and its toxic decay. As told in a National Geographic examination, “Added together, this information-age detritus makes up the fastest growing category of waste in the U.S. And the more complex the circuitry, the more complicated the equipment’s disposal, since electronics contain toxic substances such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, and beryllium that pose a hazard to both humans and the environment.”
Facts on E-Waste
- We throw out about 130,000 computers every day in the United States
- Over 100 million cell phones are thrown out annually
- E-waste amounts are expected to rise 21% by 2018 (to 50 million metric tons)
- Cell phones, microwaves, and dishwashers are the most common e-waste
- The main driver of e-waste is a growing middle class in places like China and India as well as short lifespans of tech equipment
- E-waste is advertised as being recycled within origin countries, but this typically is not what happens in reality
According to a report by the United Nations University (UNU), the world produced 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste in 2014. Combined, this trash would fill 1.15 million 18-wheel trucks. When lined up, those trucks would stretch from New York to Tokyo — and back.
Unsurprisingly, the United States and China are the biggest producers of e-waste. Together, the U.S. and China produce over one-third of all e-waste. Wealthy nations in northern and western Europe, like Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, are also big contributors. Conversely, the lowest producers are located in the developing world, including Africa and Oceania.
However, the people who generate the least amount of e-waste actually face the brunt of the issue and its worst consequences. Much of the e-waste created in wealthy nations is shipped oversees, often illegally, in enormous quantities. Many times, promises of recycling and green renewal to this type of trash are made, but such hopes are often not fulfilled. Only one-sixth of e-waste is actually recycled or reused. The rest, as has long been documented, ends up in landfills, mostly in Africa and other parts of the developing world.
This dumping is not just environmentally harmful and ethically horrid; there is a purely anthropological health concern tied to it as well. Overseas shipments of electronic waste -mostly to Africa and Asian – has created a market for parts scavenging and valuable mineral extraction. These tech products hold bits of precious metals within them, like silver, copper, platinum and gold. E-waste and mines are therefore comparable to urban mines, located right within cities at the disposal of anyone willing to hunt for desirable parts. Scavengers salvage worthwhile components and minerals from this waste – which is an extremely time consuming and dangerous process. Many discarded electronics contain toxic materials. When such items are opened up for part-picking, the toxic substances are released and terrible adverse health effects ensue, like increased cancer cases, miscarriages for women, and high levels of lead in the blood.
The illegal shipment of waste to underdeveloped Southern nations has caused global uproar. Waste facilities and even entire countries are labeled as criminals who practice bioracism, the purposeful targeting of poorer world areas consisting predominantly of colored communities. In 2005, the Basil Action Network found 500 shipping containers of electronics arriving in Lagos each month.
Mountainous e-waste accumulation is a current problem in places like Africa and Asia, but this issue will have global implications. Unless consumption habits change dramatically and e-recycling improves significantly, our world is going to be overrun by garbage. There will be no space left to dump our disposed goods anymore. Serious attention needs to be given to this area of concern and major policy changes must be implemented before irreversible damage is inflicted upon ecosystems, economies, and humankind.