E-Waste, The Toxic Good

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E-waste in Africa |Photo by Africa Times

Nearly a decade ago, smartphones did not exist – at least not how we think of them today. Now, nearly two-thirds of Africans walk around with their faces bathed in the glow of the latest models. Every year, over 50 million tons of e-waste is created.

Did someone say new iPhone?

But honestly, let us start there. Between June 29th, 2007 and November 3rd, 2017 there have been fourteen iPhone releases – from the original iPhone (First Generation) to the latest iPhone X. Millions of people in Africa have the latest model of iPhone.

We have evolved into being a use-and-throw-away culture. iPhones are not our only gadgets that fall victim to the upgrade. Our obsession with ever-advancing technology has placed a high standard on all of our products, demanding that each generation quickly improves upon the last.

Owing to that, let us ask ourselves a few questions. Is the computer you have now, the first you have ever owned? Are you still watching TV on that 75 – pound box that takes up half of your living room? Do you still visit the telephone booth just to make a call?

Guessing the answer for all of us is no. So that begs the question…Where did all of our obsolete electronics go?

What is Electronic Waste? (E-Waste)

This is one of the fastest-growing segments of our nation’s waste stream. It encompasses all broken, unusable or outdated/obsolete electronic devices, components, and materials. Also, e-waste encompasses items that can be e-cycled (electronics that are going to be reused, resold, salvaged or recycled).

This makes sense as our technology growth rate continues to accelerate exponentially. As previously mentioned, technology seems to become all but obsolete only a short time after it is purchased. That quick turn over usually happens in our periphery because, with electronics, out of sight is out of mind.

Here are some basic examples of common electronics that quickly evolved and turned previous versions into electronic waste. How many of the items below have you discarded in your lifetime:

Cellphones, Smartphones, PDAs, Pagers, computer monitors, Computer/CPUs, laptops, photocopiers, printers, scanners, fax machines, stereo, radios, mp3 player, landline telephones, DVDs, televisions, cameras, CD players, video game consoles.

Read also: Art Finds Beauty in E-Waste

The effects of e-waste

Reduce Re-use and Recycle are terms most people commonly associate with items such as paper, plastic, and glass. The need to recycle these items is understood because of the global impact that they can have when their only purpose is to take up space in a landfill. But what about e-waste?

E-waste can be some of the most dangerous discarded items but they are rarely seen as such. Why is that? The reason often comes down to their packaging.

There is a false sense of security when it comes to our electronics being non-hazardous when they become waste. Part of the problem is the packaging of the devices. Their sleek and appealing exteriors make it hard to see them as waste. When you look at a landfill image of stacks of old TVs and laptops, for instance, you only see the benign exterior. It is what you cannot see that makes electronic waste dangerous.

According to the Electronics Takeback Coalition, electronic scrap components such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful components such as lead, cadmium, beryllium or brominated flame retardants. Additional components such as mercury and arsenic can also be present. These elements have a severe human impact through exposure.

If these items are not handled well they can cause organ damage, neurological damage, and severe illness. These threats come from exposure during recycling and disposal efforts. The harmful components leak into the ground as they are packed into landfills or during incineration- common disposal methods.

How does e-waste affect the environment?

The effects of improper e-waste disposal are not well known, however, those that are known have a real global impact on the earth’s air, water, and soil.

 E-waste on air

Burning e-waste can be used as a disposal method but can also be a way to get to valuable metals such as copper. The problem- it releases pollutants into the air. For instance – when computer monitors and other electronics are burned, they create cancer-producing dioxins that are then released into the air. Yes… that is the same air we breathe.

E-waste on water

Remember those contaminants we mentioned before? Some of those are heavy metals – lead, barium, mercury and lithium (found in mobile phones and computer batteries). When these heavy metals are improperly handled or disposed of, they can leak into the soil and eventually into groundwater. The heavy metal then makes their way into streams, ponds, lake, and rivers. They make the water table toxic and unsuitable for human, animal and plant consumption.

E-waste on soil

Though the soil is the pathway on which heavy metal find water, it does not go unaffected. The harmful contaminants have a very negative impact on the Soil-Crop-Food Pathway. Crops grown on this soil is contaminated. This causes many illnesses and restricts land for clean food production.

e-waste

Solutions for E-waste

Since e-waste is so detrimental to the environment what do we do with it? Electronic Recycling (E-Cycling). E-cycling is re-using or distributing pieces or components of electronic equipment for reuse in creating another electronic device.

Why E-Cycling?

E-cycling saves other resources. Producing the brand new electronics that would eventually become e-waste requires a large number of resources – metals, plastics, and glass. The process to create these resources requires a hefty volume of fossil fuels, chemicals, and water.

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