E-Waste Health Hazards and Environmental Impacts

E-waste can pose significant health hazards and negatively impact the environment.

Definitions vary but generally e-waste include items like computers, cell phones, copiers, TVs, and microwaves. Read the post entitled “What is E-Waste?” to learn more about what constitutes e-waste.

How much E-Waste Exists?

How much e-waste exists is a difficult question to answer complicated by lack of a universal definition of e-waste, incomplete data, and non-standardized reporting.

A U.S. EPA publication Electronics Waste Management In the United States Through 2009 provides a snapshot of e-waste in the U.S. Some of the 2009 findings included:

  • Pile of E-Waste438 million new electronic products were sold;
  • 5 million short tons of electronic products were in storage;
  • 2.37 million short tons of electronic products were ready for end-of-life management;
  • and 25% of these tons were collected for recycling.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, is the observation that over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. This translates into “new and improved” electronic devices being developed faster and faster. Some say Moore’s Law became a goal for the industry instead of just an observation.

Adding to the E-Waste Stream

According to a 2013 Consumer Electronics Association press release, consumer electronics (smartphones, computers, TVs, game consoles, etc.) revenue is expected to reach $209.6 billion in 2013.

  • Pile of Cell Phone E-WasteSmartphones – 111 million sold in 2012, 130 million projected to be sold in 2013.
  • Tablet Computers – 80 million sold in 2012, 116 million projected to be sold in 2013.
  • Laptop / Notebook Computers – 26 million projected to be sold in 2013.
  • TVs with 3-D Functionality – sales are projected to increase 39% to 5.7 million in 2013.

Advertising and marketing keeps us informed about the latest “must have” electronic devices and millions of people buy them, even though the current model they own still works. Unless the older model is then handed off to another user it becomes e-waste.

E-Waste Health and Environmental Issues

Child Sitting Among Piles of Electrical Wiring E-Waste - Photo: jseattleE-waste related health and environmental issues go hand-in-hand. What is bad for people is bad for the planet. E-waste contains heavy metals (e.g. cadmium, lead, and mercury), persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs and brominated flame retardants, and other potentially toxic substances and materials.

Hazards can occur during e-waste recycling and as a result of improper disposal. Unfortunately e-waste recycling is often done by workers with little or no training, safety gear, equipment, or proper facilities. Electronic device users may not be aware of safe methods for disposing of unwanted electronics or may not care, thus contributing to e-waste hazards.

Hazardous substances may be released from the e-waste item during recycling, used to recover materials, or may be formed during recycling processes.

People – during disassembly, harmful substances may be inhaled, come in contact with the skin, or be ingested while eating after handling toxic materials.

For example, copper is sought after by e-waste recyclers. Copper electrical wiring is coated with chlorine-containing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. To obtain the copper, workers burn the plastic off the electrical wiring, thus producing toxic fumes.

Environment – improperly handled e-waste may leach toxins into the soil and water and emit toxins into the atmosphere.

For example, CRTs contain mercury. A CRT that is not properly disassembled and processed may poison plants, animals, and people.

E-Waste is Wasteful

A stash of unwanted electronic devices, e-waste, is wasteful.

  • Stash of Old Computers, Monitors, and Other E-WasteEmbodied Energy – electronic devices require not insignificant amounts energy and resources during mining for materials, manufacturing, transportation, and distribution. A cell phone sitting in a drawer is wasting its embodied energy.
  • Mining – e-waste contains valuable metals (e.g. gold, palladium, platinum, and silver) as well as rare earth elements (e.g. lanthanum, neodymium, and yttrium). When e-waste is not recycled, new metals and elements need to be mined to make future products.
  • Recyclable Materials – storing e-waste keeps recyclable materials such as metal, plastic, glass, wood, concrete, ceramics, and other substances from being reused.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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