The amount of waste that we generate has been increasing to a point that we are no longer in a position to manage it. As automation takes over our lives, every aspect of it is ruled by some kind of electric or electronic device which soon ends up as e-waste.
Our bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, not to speak of our workplace, and finally our personal space, are all dominated by dozens of e-devices that have a shorter shelf life with each successive generation of the product line.
As with plastics, the disposal of e-waste is a nightmare for waste management experts. Their disposal system has developed along random, sporadic lines, without a thought given long-term environmental issues. We have long thought that getting it out of sight was enough to get rid of them. It worked till it gradually degenerated into a situation that is suddenly causing a lot of trouble that cannot be swept under the carpet.
All electronic products at the end of their serviceable life are termed e-waste. The boundary of what constitutes e-waste and what doesn’t is a bit vague. For instance, it isn’t clearly defined if items like microwave ovens and similar products should be grouped under this category of wastes.
Certain components of e-waste contain materials that make them hazardous, depending on their density and condition. The problem of electronic waste has reached gargantuan proportions for several reasons, their improper disposal and the shortening lifespan of each new generation of products with each cycle. For instance, the latest mobile phones are usually rejected a couple of years after being used.
The latest Technological trends and consumer demands for the latest upgrades also lead to products being rejected well before the end of their lifespan. This creates additional e-waste.
E-Waste And Toxicity
Electronic waste is even more marked for developing nations as cheaper products with fewer safeguards end up in such nations, and e-waste from developed nations find their way to their shores to be recycled for certain products that are hazardous for people who handle them or live in their vicinity.
Electronic products contain several toxic chemicals such as manganese, lead PBDEs (poly-brominated diphenyl ethers), and their release as electronic wastes leads to multiple health hazards, some quite serious. PBDEs can cause thyroid problems in people who regularly handle the electronic waste. This waste has also been associated with other issues like abortions and reduced weight in newborns.
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Children who are exposed regularly to lead can develop neuro-cognitive issues. Manganese, nickel, and chromium affect the function of the lungs. All these are a result of direct exposure to the chemicals. But their disposal exposes even people not involved in directly handling electronic wastes.
Large-scale dumping leads to exposure to EWMs (electronic waste-related mixture). They are an extremely toxic combination of chemicals that can enter the body system through contact with contaminated soil, inhalation, and consumption of water and food derived from tainted soil.
A major reason for e-wastes being extra-hazardous is their ability to spread beyond their immediate dumping grounds. Electronic wastes can contaminate water systems, poison the soil from runoffs, and can move through the atmosphere, and contaminate everything that they come in contact with. The ecology and our food get polluted as a result.
E-Wastes And The Environment
A study in the Annals of Global Health has documented the extent of the issue of improper recycling of electronic waste. It was found that only around 25% of the e-waste is recycled in proper recycling centers where the workers are adequately protected.
It was found that there had not been thorough studies of both direct exposures to workers handling electronic waste and indirect exposure that occurs through environmental contamination. Policies were found to exist only on paper.
Persistent organic pollutants contained in the electronic waste can be dielectric fluids, flame retardants, and coolants. While POPs contaminate the surrounding atmosphere and water bodies, coolants bio-accumulate in seafood. These substances also contaminate crops and contribute to the greenhouse effect. POPs are resistant to environmental degradation.
The study concluded that recycling was necessary but there had to be policies in place to handle them. Such policies should be identical even in developing countries, and more stringent standards ought to be in place for children exposed to waste.
A study in Environmental Monitoring and Assessment has looked into the details of each product that leads to dangerous environmental pollution. For instance, cathode ray tubes used in TVs give out barium and lead which enter groundwater to leak phosphorus.
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De-soldering of circuit boards and the removal of chips leads to the release of lead, tin, mercury, and brominated dioxin. Nitric and hydrochloric acids are used in the manufacture of chips. These release brominated substances and hydrocarbons when burnt and enter water bodies. Rainwater also causes the chemicals to dissolve and contaminate nearby rivers and lakes. This acidifies the water bodies and releases atmospheric hydrocarbons.
70% of all electronic waste generated ends up unaccounted for. And developing nations end up facing the brunt of the hazards associated with the improper disposal of electronic waste. 75% of the electronic waste generated globally ends up in either Asia or Africa. And that constitutes a huge amount of waste as around 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated worldwide every year. Women and children are actively involved in the processing of this waste and are more vulnerable.
A study in Bangladesh found mercury, lead, and other chemicals in soils around the recycling sites. People even not directly associated with the recycling process were affected as they lived in the vicinity. The presence of multiple hazardous materials within a single device poses a problem for recyclers. Only experienced handlers and authorized agencies can handle them.
We can also do our bit as consumers by limiting our purchases to when it is necessary and taking precautions to extend its shelf life. Take the extra trouble to research a product for environmentally friendly qualities before buying them. Donate instead of dumping products that are in a usable condition and go for products that take back products at the end of their lifespan.