New Internationalist

E-wasting away

The overproduction of waste has been a global concern ever since people began throwing things away. What to do with all the trash that the world produces is not only an environmental issue – it is also a societal one. Things like paper, plastic, and aluminium have tended to be the prime products when it came to talk of what was making waste so wasteful. So much so that over the last couple of decades, recycling initiatives have been set up in order to curb the onslaught of all the garbage. However, with the new century came new technology and along with that came new waste.

Electronic waste, or the excess of broken, useless, and no longer needed electronic devices, has become a grave issue in today’s connected global village and may just be the number one issue concerning waste management in the 21st century.

A small number of industry leaders have made a push for reforming the way their products are handled once they leave the production line. Having more businesses responsibly monitor their products is one way of preventing e-waste, but what about after the sale? Inevitably, people will still throw their hazardous electronic waste in dumps, which pollutes the water supply with heavy metals. Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical, famously said that ‘water is the oil of the 21st century’. This sentiment makes sense: we can live (uncomfortably) without oil, but life on earth is impossible without water. The countries with the largest e-waste problems often have the poorest access to clean water, which further compounds their plight.

To understand the problems concerning the surplus of electronic waste it’s important to realize the effect electronic waste can have. Waste is always an issue from an environmental standpoint but electronic waste is even more of a health issue. E-waste – old computers, cell-phones, and other electronics – are made with hazardous materials and toxins that not only pollute the earth but can also cause severe health problems if not handled properly. Toxic substances like lead, cadmium, mercury and other heavy metals can be found in many of today’s e-waste materials; these substances bring with them the risks of poisoning, certain cancers, and other health problems.

With the US leading the way with three million tons of e-waste, and China not far behind with 2.3 million, the amount of e-waste is getting larger by the day, and so are the risks that come with it. It’s therefore important to think of solutions that can help stem this overproduction: the best way possible may be e-recycling.

One argument against e-recycling is that there is a risk of exposure to workers who are involved in it. But compared to putting e-waste in landfills which leach toxic chemicals into the ground, or incineration, which puts the toxins into the atmosphere, e-recycling remains a good option; one which prevents additional heavy metals from being mined for future products. Companies like eRecycle.org and proponents of e-recycling are committed to reversing the harmful effects and practices of e-waste. E-waste is a dire environmental and health issue for the 21st century, but with all of us understanding the risks and the solutions, our efforts to protect our planet and ourselves won’t be wasted.


Daniel Fielding
is a guest author from Shades of Green, a Green Technology blog. He writes on issues related to conservation, waste reduction, and cool gadgets designed to help save the planet. Daniel is a non-denominational environmentalist: any effort made towards changing our ways is a good one.

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  1. #1 Hernan Nadal 07 Jan 11

    I think the solution is to implement a law worldwide which establish the individual producer responsibility as Greenpeace propose.

    In Argentina we are tying to get that law approved and we have a small step done in this sense.

    You can read something here

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/09/greenpeace-argentina-makes-procter--gamble-take-charge-for-tons-of-used-batteries.php

    Bests!

  2. #2 ciderpunx 07 Jan 11

    This is an issue that as a techie and an environmentalist I worry about. Recycling electronic waste is good. But even better is to make electronic stuff that lasts longer! There is of course massive pressure not to do that; without being able to sell you a new ’device’ every 3 years, your electronics manufacturer is going to struggle to carry on in business. Once again capitalism scuppers the best solution!

  3. #3 dozydenise 07 Jan 11

    Or another option is not to use electronic stuff - or at least keep it to the bare minimum. So say no to the Kindle and stick to buying second-hand books from Oxfam!

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