Relative to other environmental problems, the problem of e-waste is a relatively new phenomenon, with personal electronic devices only having been around for the past half a century.
Despite this, it is a growing environmental problem that shows no signs of slowing down with an increasing number of people worldwide having access to personal electronic devices. For example, it is estimated that 2.5 billion people worldwide now own at least one smartphone (that’s around 36% of the entire world’s population.
What is e-waste?
E-waste is a term used to describe the waste from any electronic item that has become unwanted, damaged or broken and is therefore discarded, usually ending up in landfill.
Electronic items are becoming cheaper and thus feeling more disposable, fuelled by a desire to have the latest shiny new gadget.
There is also the constant progress of technology. Certain technologies such as when VHS tapes were wiped out almost overnight by DVDs. This creates huge amounts of waste as nobody has any use for the now obsolete technology.
If you just think of yourself, unless you’ve been extremely good, the chances are you have had several computers, laptops, phones etc in your lifetime. Multiply that by everyone else and you can see why it is such an issue.
What are the environmental problems caused by e-waste?
1) Mining of materials
Many electronics contain mined minerals in order to make them function. These minerals include, amongst others; copper, silicon, lead, aluminium, gold and silver. So every time an electronic item is discarded and not recycled, more of these materials are needed to produce replacements.
The environmental impacts of mining for these items come in many forms.
Firstly, there is the land use change required to create the mines in the first place. Even the Amazon rainforest isn’t safe from destruction as miners relentlessly search for precious metals such as gold, which are required in many electronical items. Much of the mining that takes place in these regions is done illegally, but this is driven by the increased global demand for these metals.
The waste produced in the mining process is also a big issue. Iron, aluminum and copper mines (all common metals in electronics) all produce large amounts of solid and liquid waste when extracted. This waste is stored in large compounds that can cover several kilometers, but with lax monitoring, this often leads to waste spills such as in Minas Gerais, Brazil in 2015 when 33m3 of toxic iron waste ended up in the River Doce.
Gold mining produces waste containing extremely toxic mercury and cyanide. For every gram of gold produced, 2 grams of mercury enters the environment. This is not only very dangerous to humans working in these areas but also get into watercourses, eventually finding its way into oceans where it finds its way into the food chain via fish.
2) Heavy metal contamination of soil
When e-waste reaches landfill or is simply dumped elsewhere the toxic chemicals within the electronics gradually leaks out and enters the soil. Soil samples taken near to e-waste processing sites have shown high levels of dangerous heavy metals including lead, cadmium, mercury, selenium, arsenic and cobalt.
Although these elements are present in soils naturally the increased levels start to have a negative impact.
These chemicals tend to be persistent and don’t break down easily, this means once in the soil they can remain there for a long time.
The direct effects of this include the deaths of important microorganisms in the soil. These microorganisms include bacteria, fungi, and others which are vital for various reactions and the promotion of decomposition without which vegetation can not survive.
Studies have shown plants growing on these contaminated soils decline in number.(1)
Although plants require some heavy metals for growth, excessive amounts have negative impacts. Once absorbed by the plants these metals can’t be broken down and so accumulate leading to adverse effects.
The accumulation of these heavy metals can start affecting human health too, as many crops absorb them from the soil. High levels of cobalt and lead have been found in crops intended for human consumption both of which can lead to adverse effects on human health if consumed in high enough quantities.
3) Contamination of groundwater
Once it has entered the soils, the toxic materials which includes dangerous heavy metals mercury and lead can enter the groundwater.
Groundwater is water stored deep in the ground in underground ‘aquifers’. It’s a precious resource and is the source of drinking water for millions of people across the planet who drill down to access this water which is present even in times of drought at the surface.
This contaminated water is either consumed by humans which can affect health or slowly makes it’s way into watercourses such as nearby rivers and streams, posing a danger to wildlife and ecosystems
In some countries where disposal of e-waste is better monitored, this problem is reducing, however, in countries such as India where dumping and poor handling of waste has lead to alarming levels of toxic metals in groundwater near to e-waste dumping sites.
4) Passing of heavy metals up the food chain
As I have already mentioned, mercury and other heavy metals persist over a long period of time (i.e they are not broken down quickly and remain toxic for a long time). This property means they can be passed between organisms up the food chain.
Once the heavy metals enter the soil or rivers they may enter a small organism such as a fish which is eaten by a bigger fish and so on.
For the fish themselves this has begun to show effects such as a reduction in reproductive success and damage to senses which could affect fish populations and therefore marine ecosystems in catastrophic ways.
Metals such as mercury persist so long they can even end up impacting human health. Tuna is one fish in particular that has been shown to build up high levels of mercury in it’s organic tissue. A single serving of some types of tuna may now surpass the maximum amount of mercury you can safely consume in a week.
5) Particulate matter from burning
Although regulations exist to prevent the open burning of e-waste, much of the e-waste produced globally is burned in open landfill. With the products containing plastics and many other toxic materials, that produces several issues.
Fine particulate matter (microscopic solid particles suspended in the air) can cause respiratory and cardio-vascular problems if inhaled by humans. If not inhaled these particles enter soils and therefore enter the food chain.
Other toxins damaging to human health are produced when e-waste is not burned at high enough temperatures. This includes dioxins which are particularly dangerous dues to the fact they last for a long time and are absorbed and stored in fat tissues. According to the World Health Organization the half-life of dioxins in the human body can be up to 11 years.
6) Emissions from constant manufacturing new products
The last of the 6 impacts is probably the most obvious but one that is often overlooked when thinking about environmental impacts of e-waste and that is the impact caused by the need to produce new items without the recycled materials to help.
For every new item that is demanded there are carbon emissions in the mining process of new items, the transport emissions to get the components to the point of manufacturing and finally the emissions associated with the building of the end product.
If we were throwing away electronics and not replacing them this would not be an issue, but the reality is the majority of people aren’t ready to give them up yet. If old items are recycled this is slightly better as at least some of the components can be re-used and this reduces the need for mining etc. However, it would be much better for the environment if we held onto those items and made them last just a little bit longer.
What can we do about it?
We know as environmentalists that any linear model that works on production and throwing away of items is normally bad news for the environment. The electronics industry has worked on this model for a while now and with dangerous toxic chemicals and precious metals thrown into the mix the impacts are amplified. So what can be done about it?
Take responsibility for our own waste
One of the major problems with e-waste along with several other waste streams, is that more economically developed countries are not taking responsibility for the problem. They put in place legislation to stop the harmful impact in their own country, but then ship the waste overseas to countries which either don’t have the laws or aren’t able to cope with the problem.
It is estimated that China, India, The Philippines and Vietnam handle well over 50% of the world’s e-waste. None of these countries have the recycling and processing facilities at the scale required to process all this waste and so it sits in dumps and landfills where the toxic chemicals leach out into the soils and watercourses or directly impact workers. Some residents in these areas have shown signs of digestive, respiratory and even neurological health problems.
Stop buying so much new stuff
We are constantly bombarded with advertising and marketing to make us want to buy the latest technology but as individuals we need to recognise this and try to hold back constantly replacing our gadgets every couple of years. If everyone could make their phones last a few years longer, get them repaired instead of replaced when something goes wrong then we can start to have a big impact.
Recycle things correctly
Recycling isn’t going to solve all our issues but if we dispose of electronic items correctly then this goes some way to alleviating some of the issues caused when we simply throw items into landfill. Smart phone recycling programs means that some of the precious metals and components locked away in the phone can be re-used, reducing the need to mine for more.
In fact, simply leaving old phones and electronics in your loft or a draw is going to prevent leaching into landfill, but you are potentially hoarding elements that could be utilised to produce new electronics if recycled correctly.
Tech companies need to take responsibility
That said it is all too easy these days for big companies to pass the responsibility to consumers. They can no longer pretend not to understand the impact of their mass production of electronics, it is time that they began to build electronics that last a long time. This is going to be tricky to do as the models these companies have built rely on people constantly wanting the new shiny model they release.
As long as this is the model the very least these tech companies must do is ensure the materials used are mined responsibly and sustainably and where possible recycles materials are utilised in the process.
(1) J. Chatterjee and C. Chatterjee, “Phytotoxicity of cobalt, chromium and copper in cauliflower,” Environmental Pollution, vol. 109, no. 1, pp. 69–74, 2000.