In 2014, Americans bought 39 million LCD televisions, 89 million computers, and 152 million smart phones. Those electronic devices will eventually be discarded as electronic waste (e-waste), including millions of tons of e-waste that winds up in landfills every year. It is an environmental and health nightmare of enormous magnitude. Adding to the problem, new advances in technology are shortening the life cycle of electronic products.
It’s not even safe to assume that electronic products that are recycled are not adding to the problem. About 80% of recycled e-waste in the U.S. is loaded onto container ships headed for China, Vietnam, Nigeria and other countries. Once exported, e-waste is scavenged by workers who remove the toxic metals and other components by burning the components or mixing them with noxious chemicals. The workers rarely wear protective equipment.
Do you know what’s inside your electronic device?
Although electronic products vary in their makeup, even a small product such as a mobile phone contains as many as 1,000 components. And many of these components contain highly toxic materials. For example:
- Circuit boards and plastic casings. Many of these contain brominated flame retardants that can impair memory and learning and can adversely affect hormonal levels.
- Monitors. Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) contain lead, exposure to which can cause intellectual impairment and can severely damage the nervous, blood and reproductive systems in humans.
- Flat screen displays. These newer displays use mercury, a toxic element that can damage the brain and central nervous system.
- Rechargeable computer batteries. These may contain cadmium, a toxic element that damages the kidneys and bones. Cadmium can also be found in switches and other components.
- Plastic housings and wiring. Many contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a chlorinated plastic that is highly toxic and produces additional toxic compounds when burned.
Sadly, as much as 60% of all e-waste in the United States winds up in landfills. Although some states have outlawed disposing of electronics in the trash, others have not. Once in a landfill, the hazardous chemicals and metals in e-waste can eventually leach out into nearby groundwater or streams and rivers. If e-waste in incinerated, it can produce highly toxic dioxin in the air.
While recycling rates in the U.S. are increasing, a significant share of recycled e-waste continues to be exported to other countries, sickening workers and the general population wherever containers are unpacked and burned down for their elements. For example, a study of air samples from one of the world’s largest e-waste processing areas in China found alarming levels of toxic pollutants, including heavy metals, in the air.
What you can do to help
Every individual can have an impact by joining in the effort to fight e-waste and by working for a safer environment for everyone. Here are a few ideas:
- Support laws and lawmakers who will stop e-waste exports. The U.S. remains among the few nations that did not sign the Basel Convention in 1992, which outlawed the exporting of e-waste. Urge U.S. lawmakers to join the other 170 nations that signed the pact. Also, some states such as California have taken action by banning e-waste exporting, but many others have not.
- Help stop dumping of electronics in landfills. Many U.S. states still allow businesses and individuals to dump electronics in the trash. Find out where your state stands, and take action if your state still allows e-waste to be disposed of in the trash.
- Know your recycler. Ask questions of any recycler who accepts your e-waste. Many recyclers claim they know where their recycled products go when in fact they do not. Check out sites such as e-Stewards.org to find a certified recycler near you.
- Buy less and buy smart. Ask yourself – do you really need that latest electronic gadget? You may find that what you already have, whether it’s a phone or a computer or a game console, already meets your needs.
- Buy RoHS-compliant products. Whenever possible, buy products that meet RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) standards, developed by the European Union. Many states already require products sold within the state to meet these standards that restrict lead, mercury and other toxic components.
- Reuse and repair. Often, computers and other electronic devices can be repaired rather than discarded. You can also make an effort to buy refurbished products that work like new and save you money too.
By taking steps to reduce e-waste today, we can each play a role in a healthier environment for everyone in the future. Visit www.nrdc.org to learn more about the growing e-waste problem and how to become part of the solution.