E-Waste Crisis

Illustration of small gadgetsThe world is fighting many different ecological crises, but one of the least talked about is the problem of electronic waste, often simply called e-waste.

Not only is the e-waste crisis is a huge problem within the United States it's quickly becoming a global crisis that must be addressed.

To stop the negative effects of e-waste in the world around us, it's important to gain a better understanding of the e-waste problem, issues driving the crisis and how we can make a difference and help solve this problem.

What is E-Waste?

What is electronic waste? E-waste includes waste from electronics, including discarded mobile phones, refrigerators, electronic office equipment, computers, television sets and electronic entertainment devices. According to, electronic waste is now responsible for 5% of municipal solid waste across the world, and e-waste affects more than just developed countries.

E-waste in a landfill
Why is e-waste such a problem? Not only is the world dealing with a significant amount of e-waste, but it's the toxic materials contained in e-waste that makes it such a problem. Hundreds of different materials are used to make electronics and their components, including heavy metals, gases, plastics, chlorinated solvents and more. Some of the most common toxic materials found in electronic waste include:

  • Mercury - Even low doses of mercury can be toxic and may cause kidney and brain damage.
  • Lead - Humans are very familiar with the negative health effects of lead, including brain damage, particularly in children.
  • Beryllium - Many connectors and motherboards include beryllium, which is considered a human carcinogen.
  • Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) - BFRs are known to negatively affect hormonal functions that are essential for normal development.
  • Cadmium - Cadmium has been shown to cause cancer, and when it accumulates within the body, it may result in kidney damage.

Changing Waste Trends

How have our changing waste trends evolved to leave us in an e-waste crisis? Over the past couple of decades, our society has become dependent on electronics and electronics have become more readily available. Fifty years ago, when a family purchased a television, they kept it for a decade or more before disposing of it. However, many families upgrade a television every couple of years as companies continually market new upgrades and improved technology.

Today, all electronics have a shorter lifecycle than they did years ago. Many individuals upgrade electronics regularly, which is especially common among cellphone users. New electronics are constantly flooding the market, and the combination of new electronic products and shorter lifecycles result in more e-waste than ever before. Unfortunately, many consumers think of purchasing the newest technology without considering what will happen to their old electronics when they replace them.

E-Waste - What Happens to It?

What is happening to all the e-waste generated by consumers today? The EPA estimates that only 25% of the electronic waste within the United States is collected for recycling, so that means that 75% of e-waste is ending up somewhere else. Here?s a look at what generally happens to e-waste.

Reuse - In some cases, old electronics are reused, whether they are re-certified and resold or sent to developing countries for reuse. However, in some cases, electronics sent to developing countries for reuse are only used a short time and then dumped in areas that don?t have proper hazardous waste facilities.

Landfills - Unfortunately, much of the e-waste ends up in landfills today. The toxic chemicals found in e-waste often leach into the ground or may be released into the air, impacting the environment and local communities.

Export - it's common for e-waste to be exported to other countries, such as India and China, where e-waste scrap yards take care of the electronic waste.

Incineration - Some e-waste is incinerated, but this is problematic because it results in the release of heavy metals into the air.

Recycling - Only a small percentage of e-waste is actually recycled. While recycling helps ensure that raw materials are reused, workers often end up handling hazardous chemicals, causing harm to the workers, the local community, and the local environment.

Issues That Drive the E-Waste Crisis

discarded ipodsIf you?re wondering why the e-waste crisis has become such a huge problem, it's important to understand the issues that are driving this crisis. First, the combination of the high demand for new electronics and the speed at which gadgets become obsolete continue to drive this crisis.

Another problem is the toxic design of electronic equipment, since most electronics contain toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead. The designs of today?s electronics often fail to take recycling and protecting the environment into account. Other problems driving the e-waste crisis include few financial incentives to recycle and few laws that regulate the disposal of e-waste.

How E-Waste Affects Our World

The e-waste crisis is a serious problem because e-waste is affecting the world around us today. When e-waste ends up in landfills, the heavy metals from the waste may leach into the ground and ground water. The burning of certain types of e-waste often results in air emissions.

The chemical stripping of certain electronic components often leads to lead and tin contamination of groundwater and the air emissions of hydrocarbons and heavy metals. For example, GreenCitizen notes that the glass used in computer monitors contains about 20% lead, and when these monitors end up in landfills, lead leeches into the ground and ends up in ground water.

E-waste has become the fastest growing waste stream in the world. The UN Enviroment Developed nations dump e-waste in developing Asian countries (India, Bangladesh, China and Pakistan) through illegal trade routes. India receives as much e-waste as it generates internally (approximately 145,000 tones each year). Almost all of it is being recycled in many poor urban localions exposing people and environment to hazardous heavy metals and deadly toxins such as lead, cadmium, beryllium and BFR (Brominated Flame Retardants).

Most of electronic and electrical appliances, like computers, mobile phones, iPods, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions etc, constitute e-waste after being discarded. These products are stripped down to yield valuable metals like platinum, gold and copper.

e-waste in India

20-yo Sharukh (L) and 22-yo Shaddam (R) collect the brass, after dismantling computers in an informal recycling unit in Seelampur, one of the main recycling areas in new Delhi. (Photo and caption by Maro Kouri)


Solutions to the E-Waste Crisis

While the e-waste crisis seems grim, solutions do exist. One of the solutions is for electronics manufacturers to stop using dangerous, hazardous materials when constructing electronics.

Remanufactured inkjet cartridge for a HP printerAnother helpful solution is for manufacturers to start taking responsibility for the full life cycle of their electronics, taking back electronics for safe recycling, disposal or re-use after they reach the end of the life cycle.

Planet Green is part of the solution by remanufacturing ink cartridges. These remanufactured ink cartridges are just as good as their original-brand counterparts the average ink cartridge can be remanufactured up to four times. Illustration of e-wasteThis keeps tons of plastic, metals and toxic chemicals out of landfills.

Of course, it's not just electronics manufacturers that can help. You can help too, by supporting companies that work to make eco-friendly products, returning electronics to the manufacturer after use and thinking before purchasing new devices if you don?t need them.

And of course, a great way to help reduce this mounting problem is to participate in e-waste recycling drives such as the one offered by Planet Green Recycle.


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