Electronic waste (also known as e-waste) has been and continues to rapidly add to the stream of municipal solid waste from frequent purchases and upgrades of various products such as mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment, and printers. E-waste is very problematic because finding new methods and locations for disposal are lacking. Furthermore, e-waste is laden with toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium that can leach into water, soils, and the atmosphere, posing significant environmental and human health risks.
The high toxicity of electronic waste makes its safe disposal expensive, especially in countries with strict environmental regulations. Industrialized countries often circumvent these high costs by selling electronic waste to developing countries where environmental standards are low or nonexistent and working conditions are poor. However, most developing countries lack the waste removal infrastructure and technical capacities necessary to ensure the safe disposal of hazardous waste. As a result, e-waste has been linked to a variety of health problems in developing countries, including cancer, neurological and respiratory disorders, and birth defects.
The 1992 Basel Convention is an international treaty signed by 169 countries to regulate the international trade of hazardous waste from its production to its storage, transport, reuse, recycling, and final disposal. However, illegal trading is pervasive and those who benefit from the waste trading continue to strongly oppose a global ban.
E-waste can be disposed of by landfills, incineration, reuse, or recycling. Landfills are problematic due to potential for toxic chemicals to leach into surrounding soils and water, which has caused many European countries to ban the practice as a precautionary measure. Nevertheless, the problem exists in developing countries where many people live close to the boundaries of landfills. Incineration release heavy metals and highly toxic fumes into the air, which cause respiratory and skin problems to those exposed. In developing countries where organized trash collection is often absent, it is typical for people to burn garbage in their backyards or neighborhoods. Reuse is common in developing countries where there is high demand for inexperience, second-hand electronics. However, 25-75 percent of used electronics shipped to developing countries are obsolete.
To date, recycling electronics for valuable raw material is a profitable endeavor in developing countries where the costs of recycling are lowest. Most recycling is done by hand in scrap yards, however, exposing workers and neighboring communities to significant health risks.
Recent reports suggest that the efforts of nonprofit groups and the media to expose the effects of e-waste dumping have influenced original equipment manufacturers and recyclers worldwide to make an effort to clean up their act. Nevertheless, a major driver of the growing e-waste problem is the short lifespan of most electronics – less than two years for computers and cell phones. In addition, consumers have few incentives to reuse or recycle used electronics equipment. In most countries, it is still too easy and relatively inexpensive to throw e-waste in the trash. Inconsistent legislation, minimal controls on the recyclers, and little enforcement has also led to widespread and inappropriate dumping of e-waste in developing countries.
Be a responsible consumer and find out if you can recycle your e-waste from the company or place it was purchased. For easier methods, search the internet for local/state recycling centers or check out the following web-site to guide you at Earth911. The Basel Action Network also certifies responsible e-waste recyclers with their E-Stewards program, so when in doubt, ask the recycler whether they are part of the network!