Digital Detritus: The Growing Problem of Electronic Waste
by Dr. Daniel Weber
In one small town in rural China, the blood of the local children is so contaminated from a specific local industry that over 80% of them are now diagnosed with significant lead poisoning. Fumes filled with poisonous dioxins and heavy metals fill the lungs of workers in . Fumes filled with poisonous dioxins and heavy metals fill the lungs of workers in Accra, Ghana as they melt the plastic insulation off copper wires. In . In New Delhi, India, the pots and pans used for cooking are the same ones used to isolate lead from other components of specific consumer products.
What do all these facts have in common? All are associated with the increased load of electronic waste, or e-waste, worldwide—and the dangers to human health caused by our contact with it. Defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as any electronic device discarded by consumers, e-wastes include televisions and computer monitors, computers and computer peripherals, audio and stereo equipment, VCRs and DVD players, video cameras, telephones, cell phones, FAX and copy machines, and video consoles. While currently occupying only a small fraction of the total amount of waste sent to landfills each year, EPA documents note that e-waste is growing 2-3 times faster than any other component of the waste produced in the US each year. Worldwide, somewhere between 20 and 50 million tons of e-waste are produced each year. It has been noted by researchers at Griffith University’s E-Waste Research Group that in Australia alone, it accounts for 40% of the lead found in landfills.
In the US, over 500 million computers were discarded between 1997-2007. The US has thrown away 550 million kilograms (kg; since 1 kg = 2.2 pounds, that means over 1 billion pounds) of lead, 900,000 kg of cadmium, 180,000 kg of mercury, 500,000 kg of chromium, 1.8 billion kg of plastics, and 159 million kg of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE; a common flame retardant used to reduce the risk of fire in a wide variety of products, such as children's pajamas and your computer).
This doesn’t even include the 130 million mobile phones that were discarded by Americans in 2005 alone creating over 65,000 tons of waste—all with similar chemical constituents. In Canada, 140,000 tons of computers, phones, stereos, and small house appliances end up in that nation’s landfills each year. To give you an idea as to how much waste that equals, try picturing a herd of 28,000 adult African elephants. It is estimated that India alone will add to this problem with 14 million computers, 39 million telephones, and 18 million TVs that will be discarded in the next 3 years .
It is unknown to what degree discarded used vehicles that increasingly rely on computers and monitors are contributing to this issue. And none of this even includes the discarded old stereos, VCRs, video cameras, televisions, or copy machines! Soon we will be adding a significant amount of the newest electronic rage to the waste stream–discarded GPS devices. And don’t forget all the batteries for flashlights, TV remote controls, hearing aids, calculators, and watches that are often discarded into the trash rather than disposed of as the hazardous waste that they are. While there are few data as to how much of these items add to the waste stream, it is very likely that few of us are totally innocent bystanders in putting these batteries into the trash.
These numbers are staggering. Given the advances in electronics technology and the exponential increase in consumer purchasing (and disposal) of electronic products in countries such as India and China, it is the explosive rate at which e-waste is being and will be generated that is of major concern. According to the US EPA Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, consumers purchase a new computer every 3-6 years (although today that number may be as low as every 2 years), cell phones every 2-4 years (98 million in the US alone), and televisions every 13-15 years (this will change dramatically over the next few years as consumers are forced to change to the new, high-definition, digital TV reception–an estimated 25 million televisions each year will be taken out of service for this switch) .
Yet, the underlying, unappreciated problem is not the amount or even the rate at which these wastes are being produced and the space they occupy in landfills per se but the components of these products that threaten the health and safety of millions of people throughout the world. Some of these substances and the hazards they can cause to human populations are outlined in Table 1.