What is e-waste and how is it affecting the environment?
Electronic waste, often known as e-waste, is a term for electronic products that are no longer functioning or useful. This tech trash requires disposal, but the disposal process has proven challenging.
E-waste can include mobile phones and other mobile devices, tablets, computers, laptops, and televisions. The word can also describe other electronic products, such as microwaves, household appliances, thermostats, smoke alarms, lighting, and any other products that use circuit boards, batteries, or electronics.
E-waste is becoming a significant problem. First of all, more and more consumer products use electronics, sensors, semiconductors, and battery power. Everyone has a mobile device these days, and many appliances and household products contain sensors or embedded systems.
These electronic devices have metals, and some of these metals, such as lead, are toxic. Almost all such devices have plastic components that are not biodegradable and may even be toxic. Additionally, batteries can pose significant challenges for recycling.
One of the most imminent issues is the idea that toxic components could seep into the water table or soil or cause air pollution. These issues could impact the health of people who live near landfills or other areas near e-waste disposal sites.
E-waste recycling is a growing industry, but the toxic components, chemicals, and plastics can make disposal or repurposing a challenge.
Global e-waste statistics.
How big is the e-waste problem? It is a massive issue worldwide, and you may be surprised to realize how much e-waste each individual produces in a year.
- According to the UN, the world produces 50 million metric tons (approximately 55 tons) of e-waste every year. That amount will more than double by 2050 if the current trend continues.
- The UN also stated that e-waste contains valuable metals. One ton of e-waste, for example, contains more gold than one ton of gold ore.
- According to the EPA, only about 25% of e-waste gets recycled.
- The World Economic Forum estimates that each American throws away 20 kg (44 lbs) of e-waste each year.
- The value of e-waste is approximately $55 billion per year. That amount is more than the GDP of many small countries in the developing world. Meanwhile, the cost of making one new $1200 iPhone 11 Pro is $443.
- A producer needs 2.8 lbs of fuel and chemicals to create one microchip. To produce one whole computer, a manufacturer must use 530 lbs of fuel, 48 lbs of chemicals, and more than a ton of water.
- A story in National Geographic said that the average American family throws away the equivalent of 400 iPhones worth of e-waste every year.
- Recycling one million laptops will save the same amount of energy as 3,500 U.S. homes use in a single year.
The effects of e-waste on the environment.
E-waste can produce damaging amounts of pollution. Since only 25% of e-waste gets properly recycled, much of it ends up in landfills. Substances such as lead, arsenic, and mercury can get into soil and groundwater. The EPA warns that these toxins can cause such problems as cancer, birth defects, and neurological damage.
In some countries, people use harmful acids or burn electronic products to extract precious metals. The burning, which recyclers sometimes do in the open air, can cause air pollution and spread toxins, which leads to health problems such as respiratory illnesses and cancers.
Human health & safety.
Some of the most vulnerable people get exposed to the toxins in e-waste. For example, lead and mercury can cause birth defects and lead to cognitive impairment in young children.
Some countries export their e-waste. These products get processed by people in informal recycling centers. The people who work at and live near these centers handle dangerous materials or get exposed to them because of burning or contaminated soil and groundwater.
If you consider how much e-waste gets produced, you can understand that it is a worldwide health and safety issue.
How to reduce e-waste.
E-waste can pollute and cause health and safety issues. However, there are options for reducing e-waste.
Because of the potential profitability of recycling these products and harvesting their valuable materials, countries and companies are actively developing recycling programs. Meanwhile, tech companies are actively promoting recycling and making it as convenient as possible for consumers.
Because of their components and materials, electronics usually get recycled through a special process. In many cases, they need to be processed at an e-waste facility.
In these facilities, recyclers remove the useful components and dispose of harmful materials. The safe disposal of hazardous materials is not possible if your e-waste ends up in a landfill.
An added advantage is that the recycling process emits fewer greenhouse gases than the process of extracting or producing new materials.
Manufacturers and some retailers offer recycling options for electronics. In the cases of mobile phones or tablets, you may even be able to recycle your old devices by mail. You can also drop off devices at retail locations or specialized drop-off centers.
Some states and local governments operate their own recycling facilities. You may also find locations where charitable organizations collect e-waste to harvest materials that they can sell to support their cause.
The EPA offers information on certified e-waste recyclers that you can use to search for options in your area.
A related option is to trade in old electronics with a retailer or service provider. In some cases, retailers may accept older, but still functioning, electronics for trade-ins when you upgrade to the latest version of a product. They will offer a discount on a new product based on the value of your old product when you trade it in.
Some retailers may even offer store credit if you trade in older items without making a purchase.
Trade-in programs are good for the environment because retailers either resell the traded-in products or use them for parts. This "second life" keeps these products and their harmful components out of landfills, and it also cuts down on carbon emissions from manufacturing new products because someone will buy the used product instead of a new one.
Consumers benefit from a discount on a new model of their product when they trade in the old one. Also, someone can purchase the used product if it gets resold by the retailer. They can get a second-hand phone or another electronic device for a lower price than a new one. Quality resellers will refurbish and certify used products to ensure quality.
Reduce electronics consumption.
One of the most effective ways to reduce e-waste is to limit purchases of electronic products. If you are replacing an existing product, you can ask yourself whether it actually requires replacement. Is it genuinely obsolete, and will a new product bring more value or increased performance?
When it comes to products such as phones, your purchases may be driven by gimmicks or cell phone addiction rather than choosing a product that delivers value and offers significant upgrades from your current model.
If your product gets damaged, you may look into repairs instead of a replacement. For some products, such as phones, repairs may be cheaper than you might think. Additionally, you may be able to purchase an existing product second-hand rather than get a new product in some instances.
In other cases, you can choose a product without an embedded computer system instead of one with extra sensors. If you do not think these extras are necessary or provide more value to the product, you may not actually need them.
Support sustainable businesses.
Another option to reduce the impact of e-waste is to purchase products from companies that support sustainability and make an effort to reduce their environmental impact.
Some retailers make it convenient to trade in old products, while others take extra steps to improve the longevity of their products and make them more durable so that you do not need to purchase new ones as often.
Other companies take steps to make their products more eco-friendly by reducing the use of toxic materials and using recycled materials instead of newly sourced ones.