‘E-waste’ is not a word that is particularly well known, but it is likely to become much more prevalent in the future. E waste is the shorthand for electronic waste, and refers to discarded electrical and electronic devices. These include smartphones, laptops, tablets, computers, monitors, electronic office equipment and entertainment devices such as games consoles. In fact, anything digital that has been thrown away can be classed as e-waste. This type of refuse is the fastest growing category of waste in the U.S. and with the constant release of new models of electronic equipment, combined with a consumerist culture that promotes disposability, it is only likely to become more of a problem. And the problem is not just an American one; e-waste is a global concern. A report by the United Nations in 2012 put the globally generated amount of e-waste at 50 million tons – which is equivalent to around seven kilograms for every person on the planet.
There are distinct problems with e-waste that pose dangers to the environment and humans. These are due to the wide variety of dangerous chemicals that electronic devices contain. Cathode ray tube televisions and computer monitors, for example, have a large amount of lead in them – which was used to prevent radiation leaking from them when in use. If not disposed of properly, this lead can leach into the ground and from there into the water table. In sufficient quantities, lead can affect kidney function in humans and animals, and damage reproductive systems. Even at low levels of exposure, lead in water supplies has been found to impair development in children. But it is not only lead that is problematic with e-waste. Circuitry and semi-conductors in devices contain chemicals such as cadmium, barium and arsenide, which are all toxic to humans, while switches contain mercury which can damage brain and kidney damage in adults as well as children when passed on through the mother’s breast milk. Wires and cables are typically coated in plastic that is made from PVC. When this is burned, as it often is in refuse sites, it releases some of the most harmful carcinogens into the air.
These chemicals are dangerous when leached into the soil and water sources, but are also harmful for the workers involved in dismantling e-waste. Due to lax enforcement of regulations, as much as a third of American e-waste gets transported to developing countries for disposal. In these countries, safety measures for workers are often less strict than those in America, and they risk exposure to dangerous levels of the chemicals, adversely affecting their health.
With so many problems associated with the disposal of e-waste, we need to do everything we can to minimize the amount we produce. Here are some methods for doing so.
The first thing is to consider whether you really need a new device. Products are often marketed as ‘must have’ and there can be a lot of peer pressure to have the latest device. But often this doesn’t take into account the practical use of the device. Always chasing the latest technology is a never-ending quest – there will always be a new product or an upgrade. Think about whether you really need the additional options on a new device. Look at what you use your current device for and if it still suits your needs. You might also consider how all your electronic devices fit together. For instance, do you need a laptop, desktop and tablet to meet your computing needs or would one suffice? Also consider you usage of the device as part of your lifestyle. Do you use the television or computer as a default option when you don’t have anything else to do? Do you have the television on in the background even though you are not actually watching it?
You can extend the life of your electronic device in several ways. Make sure you that look after it. Buying a case for your laptop or tablet helps to protect it from bumps and scrapes, while screen protectors can minimize the risks of cracking or damaging the screen of a computer, tablet of smartphone. One of the most common ways in which devices are damaged is regular overcharging of the battery. When you battery is full, unplug the device so it is not being continually supplied with power (this also helps reduce electricity usage). The other thing to consider to extend the use of devices is get software and memory upgrades. Often new versions boast of increased memory, programs or apps, but often these can be amended to an existing device.
If you have decided to get a new device, think about who may benefit from receiving your old one. Charitable organizations, schools, friends and family members may be grateful to receive a donation of electronic equipment (just make sure you take any personal information off your device first). If you don’t know of someone in your immediate circle that would like the device, consider ‘free-cycling’. Many towns and cities have online forums for people to offer unwanted items for free to those who want them. This is a great way of circumventing traditional monetary economies.
Many of the components and materials in electronic devices can be recycled, such as the metal in wiring and circuit boards. By recycling your e-waste you ensure that any usable material is extracted for another purpose, so reducing the use of raw materials, saving resources that would go into manufacturing new products – including water and manpower – and preventing dangerous chemicals going into landfill. Many local authorities have dedicated schemes for recycling e-waste, so check with your local council. Sometimes manufacturers themselves have schemes to take back unwanted devices for recycling. You may be able to mail the device to the manufacturer – this is common with mobile phones – return it to the point of purchase or drop it off at a collection point, You may even get a discount on your new purchase for doing so.