Dangers From Uncontrolled E-Waste

Uma Shankari By Uma Shankari, 21st Jul 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Technology>Computer Hardware

Electronic waste, commonly referred to as e-waste, is electronic equipment such as broken cellphones, old computers, iPods, small appliances, and other obsolete gadgets that no longer serve a purpose and are thus discarded. This E-trash is a growing menace that can be solved only by consumers' awareness and timely action to prevent damage to the environment caused by electronic skeletons buried in the landfills.

What is E-Waste?

People are buying more and more electronic products every year. Using latest gadgets is also considered a fashion statement. Newer gadgets are faster and sleeker and offer more features at a cheaper price. The fast pace of new age technology makes people or organizations using gadgets like laptops, computers, televisions or mobiles from 1990s look like Neanderthals in the Darwinian landscape. Coupled with computers, consider also medical, aviation, military and domestic appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators, microwave ovens and the ubiquitous TV set, and the electronic discards assume massive proportions. This has caused a dangerous explosion in e-waste – electronic scrap – containing toxic chemicals and heavy metals that cannot be disposed of, or recycled safely.

Annually, about 30 per cent of the equipment becomes obsolete in every IT company. Hundreds of thousands of old computers, mobile phones and other electronic junk are dumped in landfills or burned in smelters. Megatons of electronic debris sleeping inside the landfills are nothing short of ecological time bombs, experts warn. All landfill sites leak and all incinerators release extremely dangerous air pollutants and toxic ash. They get into the groundwater very soon and into the air. The natural environment doesn't have infinite capacity to degrade waste, and the earth is fast turning into an e-graveyard of discarded stockpiles of electronic components.

Disposing the Electronic Discards

Some of the discards in the company godowns is passed on to 'recyclers' who sell second-hand parts to computer assemblers in the grey market. Thousands more are exported, often illegally, from the Europe, US, Japan and other industrialized countries, to the Third World countries. There, workers at scrap yards are exposed to a cocktail of toxic chemicals and poisons.

Young laborers, some of them children, extract with bare hands precious metals such as gold and silver using crude chemical processes.

'Wealth' From Waste – A Great Health Hazard

Apart from gold or silver, they can recover platinum, silicon, cadmium, nickel, copper, lead and iron during the recycling process.

After the extraction of the precious metals, most then burn or bury the waste, mainly plastics and printed circuit boards, in illegal dump yards where they release toxic and carcinogenic substances into the air, and produce an acrid, lingering smog. These noxious fumes contain toxins dioxins and furans.

Cell phone coatings are often made of lead, which is toxic especially to children. Cell phone batteries are often composed of nickel and cadmium, a carcinogen that causes lung and liver damage, lithium or lead.

Brominated flame retardants used in many electronic equipments release, when incinerated, toxic substances that can build up in human tissues, stored in fatty tissues and fluid, such as breast milk, and can be passed on to fetuses and infants during pregnancy and lactation.

Mercury used in relays, switches and printed circuit boards (PCB) can cause chronic respiratory damage and skin disorders, whereas the beryllium used in motherboards is carcinogenic. Workers inhaling fumes and dust are known to suffer from chronic beryllium disease or beryllicosis.

Throughout the process of dismantling electronic devices, the toxins in the products can contaminate the air, water, and soil if not treated in a sustainable manner.

Action Against Illegal Exports of Electronic Scrap To Developing Countries

In rich, industrialized countries, public pressure against toxic waste generation and proliferation has resulted in the closure of some toxic waste disposal sites, and the adoption of stricter regulations. All of these efforts have dramatically raised the costs of waste disposal. Stringent laws in developed countries have ensured the dangerous stuff is kept out of their landfills but have turned a blind eye to those shipped offshore.

Thousands of tons of wastes are exported, often illegally, from the Europe, US, Japan and other industrialized countries, to the Third World countries. There, workers at scrap yards are exposed to a cocktail of toxic chemicals and poisons.

The United States is the world leader in producing electronic waste, junking away about 3 million tons each year. Yet it is not yet a signatory to the international treaty passed in 1989 called Basel Convention, which prohibits countries from dumping hazardous wastes in other countries.

A number of governments around the world have begun to adopt regulations restricting all aspects of a product's "life cycle". Europe has formulated Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) which severely restricts what is allowed into landfills, and a directive called RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive) that puts a plug on hazardous substances from being used in the product. As a result of these new laws, many companies have sought out alternatives to toxic substances used in their electronic components, as well as initiate take-back programs to keep their products out of the waste cycle when they are finally ready to be disposed of.

Many non-government organizations such as Greenpeace have been conducting vigorous campaigns forcing international market leaders like HP, Dell, LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Nokia to eliminate some of the most hazardous chemicals from their products and substitute safer alternatives in their place. Arguing that 'Polluter Pays', they want the producers to understand and accept the responsibility in minimizing the use of toxic substances, direct their R and D to come up with alternative raw materials and take initiatives in safe disposal of electronic wastes.

What can you do as a responsible consumer?

Buy products from only those who use green technologies. Support watch bodies that pressure government agencies to implement the laws more strictly. Chant "Reduce, Recycle, Reuse..." when just about to discard computers, or their accessories, and other electronic equipments. You could donate them to students or non-profit organizations. People can organize to collect old electronic goods from houses in their residential areas and contact the authorized recyclers to pick up the equipments from their premises.


Basel Convention, Electronic Wastes, Environment, Recycling, Rohs, Toxic Wastes, Weee

Meet the author

author avatar Uma Shankari
I write on society, relationships, travel, health, nutrition and fitness.
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author avatar Subra
22nd Jul 2012 (#)

Yes Uma well said. The dangers of toxic waste generated from uncontrolled e-waste can be minimised if Governments and people would move to 'Reduce, Recycle, Reuse' it.

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