Did You Know?
If all the mobile devices disposed in USA, in 2010, were laid out end-to-end, they would occupy 50 million feet in length.
In this era of rapid technological advancement, more and more electronic goods are becoming obsolete. A perfect example would be that of computers, whose processing power doubles almost every two years, leading many customers to buy the latest model, even when their previous one works just fine. In most developed countries, this results in usable electronic devices being junked, rather than being reused or recycled.
These discarded goods are called various names, like electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Ironically, most of this is not 'waste' at all; rather, it mostly comprises devices, which, though undesirable for the owner, can be directly reused or recycled to recover valuable materials.
The amount of e-waste produced each year runs into several millions of tons in developed countries. It ends up in disposal facilities which are ill-equipped to handle such items. The end result is a leak of toxic heavy metals which have the potential to seriously damage the surrounding environment and the health of humans who come in contact with it. The main causes of e-waste are, rapid technology change, low initial price of modern electronics, a planned obsolescence of earlier devices, and plain old ignorance.
What is E-waste?
Electronic waste, also called E-waste, is defined as a collection of broken, discarded, surplus or obsolete, electrical or electronic equipment, that require the action of an electromagnetic circuit to function. Some of the things included in e-waste are:
- Entertainment devices, like televisions and DVD sets
- Communication and IT equipment, like personal computers and their peripherals, cell phones, and landlines
- Household appliances, like vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and microwave ovens
- Portable equipment, like desk lamps and power tools
- Equipment for fitness and recreation, like treadmills and toys
Sale of Electronic Devices
Around 300 million computers and 1 billion cell phones are manufactured every year worldwide; an amount expected to grow by 8% for an indefinite period.
About 22% of mercury used each year around the globe is used in the manufacture of electronics.
More than 68% of the electronic good users in the US; stockpile devices, like computers and cell phones, that they don't need.
It has been found that the average US cell phone user replaces his model once every 18 months, despite the worldwide average cell phone life being around 7 years. As a result, about 100 million cell phones are disposed each year in the country.
A UN study claims that manufacturing a computer requires a total of 530 lb of fossil fuel, 48 lb of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water; much heavier than a car.
81% of the energy used in the total life cycle of a desktop computer with a 17-inch monitor is utilized during its manufacture, and not in its operation.
E-waste Production Statistics
The amount of E-waste produced each year in the world is about 50 million tons, and it keeps growing by 4% each year.
USA alone produces around 3 million tons each year, which makes it the world's highest e-waste producer. Despite being a developing country, China is second on the list.
E-waste is the fastest growing source of waste in North America.
Australians buy 4 million computers and 3 million television sets every year, making the country one of the highest consumers of technology.
In China, around 20 million household electronic devices, like washing machines and televisions, and 70 million cell phones, reach the end of their life each year.
The amount of e-waste being produced could rise by as much as 500% in developing countries like India, within the next ten years.
About 142,000 computers and 416,000 cell phones are disposed off in the US every single day.
80 to 85% of all e-waste is disposed in landfills or incinerators, which releases toxins in the air and soil.
More than 97% of the electronic devices in landfills are actually usable. In fact, 30% of the items disposed can be resold immediately as is.
If all the e-waste items disposed in landfills, in 2010, were added up, there would be more than one item for every US citizen.
According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), about 80% of all e-waste disposed in the US does not get recycled, and is shipped to developing nations like India, China, Pakistan, and Ghana, where processing of the waste is more profitable, due to less stringent environmental norms.
By percentage, e-waste represents only 2% of the total municipal waste in America, but by toxicity, the representation is more than 70%.
The Town of Guiyu, in China, is called the 'e-waste capital of the world', because most of the world's e-waste is dumped there. The average blood lead concentration of the town's child workers is 149, when, in fact, any value higher than 100 is harmful. Lead poisoning is a common result of improper disposal of e-waste. Moreover, more than 10 poisonous heavy metals occur in a high concentration in the region.
A study claims that more than 80% of the e-waste that reaches Ghana is directly burned off without following any safety precautions whatsoever.
Recycling e-waste will help in home space management, prevent pollution, and conserve natural resources, since materials required for manufacture can be directly obtained from recycling.
The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only about 15 - 20% of annual e-waste is recycled, while the rest is disposed off in landfills. In 2005, only 12.6% of the year's e-waste was recycled in USA.
Despite the hazardous effects of e-waste, it is a source of around 60 elements, many of which are rare and valuable. Experts say that recycling 1 million cell phones can produce 50 lb of gold, 550 lb of silver, 20 lb of palladium, and 20,000 lb of copper.
Only 15% of all US computer users recycle their devices, while products of the rest 85% end up in landfills for disposal.
Recycling a million laptops will save energy equal to the annual power requirement of 3,657 American homes. If all disposed cell phones worldwide are recycled, it will save the energy equivalent to the power requirement of more than 24,000 US homes.
Aluminum obtained from recycled e-waste saves about 90% of the energy needed to extract fresh aluminum from mines.
Recycling one metric ton of e-waste containing personal computers will provide more gold than 17 tons of gold ore.
For every 10,000 tons of e-waste that is recycled, 296 additional jobs are created.
The European Union banned e-waste disposal in landfills way back in 1990, and currently, manufacturers themselves hold responsibility for the disposal of their products.
E-waste laws have been stalled by most state governments in the US. Only 24 states have passed, or proposed take-back laws regarding disposal of e-waste. On January 1, 2011, West Virginia passed a law banning all covered electronic goods. The state of Colorado banned disposal of electronic devices in household trash cans on July 1, 2013.
Effects of E-waste
E-waste is a source of more than 1,000 toxic substances, such as lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, beryllium, and dioxins. Most of these toxins are heavy metals.
Older televisions are an important source of lead, as each set contains about 4 lb of this metal. Modern flat screen computers and televisions contain a higher amount of mercury, which is required in the bulbs present inside.
The substances found in e-waste are extremely hazardous to human health, causing cancer, damaged reproductive, nervous, digestive systems, organs like kidneys, endocrine glands, and may even cause death due to prolonged exposure. The high lead concentration found in child workers in Guiyu, China, is sufficient to impair the brain function, and even cause death.
These chemicals find their way into the human body when e-waste is disposed by incineration, giving off noxious fumes. The other route of entry is by drinking water contaminated with leachate (liquid emitted from landfills), which seeps into the ground.
The workers who handle e-waste in developing countries are often the most affected by inhalation of toxic gases, as they don't have access to protective equipment. They get paid around $1.50 a day, and many of them are children.
When e-waste is dumped in landfills, it releases a toxic leachate, that may be transported to water bodies like lakes, rivers, and oceans because of rainfall or proximity to the coast. There, it enters the bodies of marine animals and fish, which are in turn eaten by other creatures like birds, some of which may be endangered. Even humans consume such fish.
Landfills containing e-waste also give off greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in an amount equal to the emission of 178,000 cars.
The problem of e-waste disposal is only expected to get worse, as consumption of electronic goods increases, both, in western and developing nations. When replacing an electrical appliance, it is always advisable to sell the item, or find an e-Steward certified recycler, rather than dumping it into the trash.