Digital Detritus: The Growing Problem of Electronic Waste

by Dr. Daniel Weber
 
In one small town in rural China, the blood of the local children is so contaminated from a specific local industry that over 80% of them are now diagnosed with significant lead poisoning[1]. Fumes filled with poisonous dioxins and heavy metals fill the lungs of workers in . Fumes filled with poisonous dioxins and heavy metals fill the lungs of workers in Accra, Ghana as they melt the plastic insulation off copper wires[2]. In New Delhi, India, the pots and pans used for cooking are the same ones used to isolate lead from other components of specific consumer products[3].
 
What do all these facts have in common? All are associated with the increased load of electronic waste, or e-waste, worldwide—and the dangers to human health caused by our contact with it.   Defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as any electronic device discarded by consumers, e-wastes include televisions and computer monitors, computers and computer peripherals, audio and stereo equipment, VCRs and DVD players, video cameras, telephones, cell phones, FAX and copy machines, and video consoles[4]. While currently occupying only a small fraction of the total amount of waste sent to landfills each year, EPA documents note that e-waste is growing 2-3 times faster than any other component of the waste produced in the US each year[5]. Worldwide, somewhere between 20 and 50 million tons of e-waste are produced each year. It has been noted by researchers at Griffith University’s E-Waste Research Group that in Australia alone, it accounts for 40% of the lead found in landfills[6].
 
In the US, over 500 million computers were discarded between 1997-2007. The US has thrown away 550 million kilograms (kg; since 1 kg = 2.2 pounds, that means over 1 billion pounds) of lead, 900,000 kg of cadmium, 180,000 kg of mercury, 500,000 kg of chromium, 1.8 billion kg of plastics, and 159 million kg of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE; a common flame retardant used to reduce the risk of fire in a wide variety of products, such as children’s pajamas and your computer).
 
This doesn’t even include the 130 million mobile phones that were discarded by Americans in 2005 alone creating over 65,000 tons of waste—all with similar chemical constituents[7]. In Canada, 140,000 tons of computers, phones, stereos, and small house appliances end up in that nation’s landfills each year[8]. To give you an idea as to how much waste that equals, try picturing a herd of 28,000 adult African elephants. It is estimated that India alone will add to this problem with 14 million computers, 39 million telephones, and 18 million TVs that will be discarded in the next 3 years[9].
 
It is unknown to what degree discarded used vehicles that increasingly rely on computers and monitors are contributing to this issue. And none of this even includes the discarded old stereos, VCRs, video cameras, televisions, or copy machines! Soon we will be adding a significant amount of the newest electronic rage to the waste stream–discarded GPS devices.   And don’t forget all the batteries for flashlights, TV remote controls, hearing aids, calculators, and watches that are often discarded into the trash rather than disposed of as the hazardous waste that they are. While there are few data as to how much of these items add to the waste stream, it is very likely that few of us are totally innocent bystanders in putting these batteries into the trash.
 
These numbers are staggering. Given the advances in electronics technology and the exponential increase in consumer purchasing (and disposal) of electronic products in countries such as India and China, it is the explosive rate at which e-waste is being and will be generated that is of major concern. According to the US EPA Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, consumers purchase a new computer every 3-6 years (although today that number may be as low as every 2 years), cell phones every 2-4 years (98 million in the US alone), and televisions every 13-15 years (this will change dramatically over the next few years as consumers are forced to change to the new, high-definition, digital TV reception–an estimated 25 million televisions each year will be taken out of service for this switch) [10].
 
Yet, the underlying, unappreciated problem is not the amount or even the rate at which these wastes are being produced and the space they occupy in landfills per se but the components of these products that threaten the health and safety of millions of people throughout the world. Some of these substances and the hazards they can cause to human populations are outlined in Table 1.
 
Table 1: Some key components of electronic products and the hazards they present to human health.[11] [12]
 

Chemical
Usage
Hazard
Cadmium
Plastic stabilizers
Cables and wires
Phosphorescent coatings on faceplates
Toxic to proper functioning of the kidney and liver
Chromium
Semiconductors
Resistors
Infrared detectors
Cancer-causing
Copper
Wires
Toxic to the proper functioning of the nervous system
Lead
Glass panels
Circuit boards
Toxic to the proper functioning of the nervous system and disrupts the proper functioning of the hormone systems, especially harmful to children
Lithium
Batteries
Toxic to the proper functioning of the nervous system
Mercury
Circuit boards
Relay switches
Toxic to the proper functioning of the nervous system and disrupts the proper functioning of the hormone systems
Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE)
Flame retardant added to cables, casings, and circuit boards
Affect the thyroid hormone system which can alter metabolism and nerve development; especially dangerous for young children
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Product casings
Circuit boards
When burned, produces dioxins which are cancer-causing and disrupts the proper functioning of the hormone systems

 
Not only are there no standard, uniform methods or sets of regulations by which these hazardous chemicals are handled and monitored, they vary widely between and within nations. While several states within the US[13] and countries such as Canada[14] and Israel[15] are in various phases of developing plans to enhance environmentally safe recycling efforts, there remains a story of some successes, many failures, and prominent cases of environmental injustice to the world’s impoverished even if such procedures are in place. and countries such as Canada and Israel are in various phases of developing plans to enhance environmentally safe recycling efforts, there remains a story of some successes, many failures, and prominent cases of environmental injustice to the world’s impoverished even if such procedures are in place.
 
Compounding the inherent problem of e-waste toxicity and key to the future efforts to effectively solve the problem is what actually happens to the items when they are dropped off at a collection site? Our efforts to be good stewards of the environment are dependent upon the answers to the following questions. Where and how is the scrap processed? Are the items shipped overseas to countries without adequate environmental, occupational, or child labor laws or are they sent to reputable dealers? How can one be sure that the item they drop off at the local collection site is truly being recycled rather than sent to a landfill? The January 2008 issue of the National Geographic highlights many of the problems with unsafe recycling efforts in underdeveloped countries. To attend to these issues, an increase in both public and private sector initiatives are being created. In the US, many states have banned computer monitors (called cathode ray tubes or CRTs) from landfills or have enforced recycling efforts, legislated or encouraged producer responsibility vís a vís toxic components or collection of old items, or provided recycling grants.
 
Some of the larger manufacturers of electronic products, e.g., Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Sharp, and Gateway, as well as some retailers, e.g., Staples, have initiated take-back programs for everything from computers to rechargeable batteries. In a collaborative effort between federal, state, local governments, and private businesses and non-profits groups, the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) has created a voluntary system to maximize collection, reuse, recycling, and reduction and identification of viable funding mechanisms to encourage these efforts. Additionally, NEPSI encourages reductions in toxic chemical content and increase the amount of recyclable materials in electronic devices[16].  In Canada, the equivalent group is called The Electronic Product Stewardship Canada.
 
Dr. Daniel Weber is chair of Canfei Nesharim’s Science & Tech Advisory Board. He examines the relationship of toxic environmental contaminants to the changes in behavior and neural development in fishes. Additionally, Dr. Weber works with state and federal natural resource managers to evaluate the effect of urban storm water runoff on the reproductive success of native fish species with the goal of developing guidelines for managing urban and urbanizing watersheds.
 

Notes:

[1]    Huo X, et al., Elevated Blood Levels of Children in Guiyu, an Electronics Waste Recycling Town in China, Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 115: pages 1113-1117, 2007.
[2]    Carroll C, High-Tech Trash, National Geographic Vol. 213, pages 64-87, 2008.
[3]    Ibid.
[4]    EPA
[5]    Ibid.
[6]    Facts and Figures
[7]    Ibid.
[8]    Ibid.
[9]    Ibid.
[10]  Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2000 Facts and Figures. US EPA Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. June 2002, pages 150-160.
[11]  Carroll C, High-Tech Trash, National Geographic Vol. 213, pages 64-87, 2008.
[12]  Casarett & Doull’s Toxicology – The Basic Science of Poisons (6th Edition). Klaassen, Curtis D. (ed.), McGraw-Hill, 2001.
[13]  For a list see: Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, Electronic Waste Management in Vermont, January 2004.
[14]  Environment Canada
[15]  Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection
[16]  Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, Electronic Waste Management in Vermont, January 2004.

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