5 Alarming E-Waste Facts

Under the incessant rise of technology and the fervent consumerism which seems to have taken over the better part of the world, electronic waste is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Electronic waste, or e-waste for short, refers to electronic devices and household appliances which are no longer in use, such as obsolete cell phones or broken refrigerators. The tendency to discard of old technology in a heartbeat when a new, more innovative gadget is available is responsible for a significant portion of the e-waste we produce, as numerous devices are perfectly functional upon being thrown away. Cell phones are by far the most common electronic devices people dispose of, being replaced, on average, every 22 months. To make matters worse, a cell phone now has a lifespan of only 18 months, whereas a laptop is expected to work satisfactorily for approximately 2 years, which will inevitably contribute to the increase of e-waste over time.

Worldwide, over 40 million metric tons of electronics go to waste every year, out of which only a little over 15% is properly recycled. However, ethical and environmentally friendly recycling is often problematic, as a considerable amount of e-waste ends up in developing countries like India or China. The vast majority of people who deconstruct it are subjected to toxic exposure on a regular basis, as they come in contact with lead and mercury, as well as with other heavy metals, without benefiting from protective equipment. While heavy metals occur naturally in the earth’s crust, exposure to high concentrations can severely affect the nervous and the respiratory systems, according to Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. Since e-waste is frequently burnt after undergoing deconstruction, hazardous substances are also released in the surrounding environment, ultimately leading to tremendous pollution.

Although the situation is already staggering, the global volume of e-waste is expected to continue increasing in the near future, as the consumption of electronics is unprecedentedly accelerating. The following five facts should serve as a wake-up call with regard to the extent of the e-waste problem we are currently facing and will hopefully make you think twice before purchasing a new electronic device.

1. The U.S. Produces Over 11 Million Metric Tons of E-Waste Annually, Which Is the Greatest Amount in the World

Surprisingly or not, the U.S. has been generating more e-waste than any other country over recent decades. In 2014 – the most recent data available – approximately 11.7 million metric tons of electronics were thrown away by Americans, which accounted for nearly 28% of the global e-waste at the time. By contrast with the 2 million metric tons registered in 2005, it was undoubtedly a colossal increase. Unfortunately, the amount of e-waste is expected to continue growing with 5% every year.

Nearly all e-waste is recyclable. However, only 25% of it undergoes this process, whereas the remaining 75% is sent to landfills and incinerators, both throughout the country and overseas. The electronic devices which are most often recycled are computers, with a rate of 38%, followed by television sets and cell phones.

2. The Cell Phones Americans Discard Every Year Contain Approximately $60 Million in Gold and Silver

By virtue of the astounding technological breakthrough which has been achieved hitherto, staying in touch with one another is now easier than ever. As a widely available commodity, cell phones enjoy unparalleled momentum nowadays. So popular have these devices become that the number of cell phones in use actually exceeds the number of people living on Earth. The growth rate of mobile devices is five times higher than that of the population. Nevertheless, considering the ongoing progress of mobile technology, the amount of e-waste in bound to increase.

Over the course of one year, the U.S. throws away more than 152 million cell phones, which contain gold and silver, as well as palladium, another precious metal which is used for the manufacturing of surgical instruments and watch components. The amount of gold and silver found in these discarded electronics is worth approximately $60 million. According to EPA, recycling one million cell phones can result in 75 lb of gold, 772 lb of silver, and 33 lb of palladium. Were the recycling rates for these metals to rise to 100%, roughly $12 billion in financial and natural capital benefits would be obtained from cell phones.

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3. E-Waste Is a Major Health Hazard

Up to 8 lb of lead, a heavy metal capable of causing brain and kidney damage, are present in old television sets and cathode ray tube monitors. While lead is one of the most harmful agents found in e-waste, it is nowhere near the only health threat. Other toxic elements which can easily escape from electronic devices that were not properly disposed of include:

  • Beryllium
  • Mercury
  • Dioxins
  • Cadmium
  • Arsenic
  • Nickel
  • Chromium
  • Polyvinyl Chloride

LCD desktop monitors and portable DVD players with LCD screens, as well as plasma television sets, entail the highest risk in this regard. If they are left in landfills for extended periods of time, heavy metals will gradually infiltrate the soil, poisoning plant, animal, and human life alike. Hydrochloric acid is sometimes poured on electronics to reveal steel and copper, which only heightens the extent of pollution. Heavy metals stemming from e-waste account for approximately 40% of the entire concentration present in the U.S. landfills.

4. 1.5 Tons of Water, 530 lb of Fossil Fuel, as well as 48 lb of Chemicals Are Necessary to Manufacture One Computer

It is safe to say that electronics inflict the most harm on the environment at the beginning and at the end of their life cycle. With computers, however, the issue is particularly dire. The production of a single computer depletes a tremendous amount of resources. In fact, over 80% of the energy these electronic devices require throughout their whole lifespan is consumed during production. To put it otherwise, more energy is necessary to create a computer than to run it until it is no longer functional. This makes computers different than any other household appliance, which needs substantially more energy to work than to be brought into existence.

Recycling one million laptops can spare enough energy to supply 3,657 U.S. homes for a year. Moreover, if reusing computers became standard practice, nearly 300 jobs would be available for every 100,000 metric tons of processed e-waste annually.

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5. E-waste Makes Up Over 70% of the Hazardous Waste in the U.S. Landfills

While discarded electronics represent only 2% of the U.S. municipal waste, which would occupy roughly 60 landfills on their own, they account for the majority of the country’s toxic waste. Not so long ago, approximately 80% of the e-waste in the U.S. would be exported to Asia, primarily to Guiyu, China – formerly known as the e-waste capital of the world. There, electronic components would be broken down using improper methods, which exposed workers to dangerous concentrations of lead and other hazardous agents. According to estimates, over 1.6 million metric tons of e-waste passed through Guiyu every year until better regulations came into effect, generating more than $800 million.

Due to the appalling extent of contamination, the water in Guiyu is downright undrinkable and the town has the highest levels of dioxins in the entire world. A study found that 82% of the children, who often partook in processing e-waste as well, had a blood concentration of lead exceeding 100 micrograms, which is ten times greater than the healthy level. Nowadays, as a result of China’s striving to reduce pollution, Guiyu is more or less a ghost town.

About the Author:

Gregory A. Cade has handled environmental and occupation law claims for the past 20 years. Together with the attorneys from his firm, Environmental Litigation Group, they have recovered more than $1 billion for asbestos victims and have processed more than 200,000 asbestos claims.

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