When I worked on Capitol Hill a few years back, I remember attending a briefing on electronic or e- waste. And, returning to my desk a little stunned. While not an aficionado of yearly laptop or cell phone upgrades, I was certainly aware that these devices were fast becoming disposable. And, not unlike Styrofoam plates that populate many an outdoor gathering these summer days, these “disposable” items live long after their active use, with significant environmental consequences.
According to the EPA, Americans discarded approximately 2.4 million tons of TVs, computers, cell phones and other electronics in 2010, roughly 25 percent of which was recycled. A new report from research firm MarketsandMarkets estimates the global e-waste generated in 2011 topped 41 million tons and that number is expected to rise to 93.5 million by 2016. In the US, the vast majority of this e-waste ends up in landfills, where dangerous chemicals such as mercury, cadmium, lead, phosphors, arsenic, and beryllium leach into the ground – and eventually into the local water supply. This list from e-wasteguide.info details the hazardous materials that are built into the various devices we use every day, and those chemicals live on long after we have discarded the device. It is more than a little scary.
Outside the US, particularly in developing countries, the consequences of e-waste are even more devastating. Many developed countries ship their e-waste to China, India, and West African countries where families often subsist on recycling the valuable elements such as gold and copper from discarded computers, cell phones and other devices. Plumes of smoke from burning cables and other material – the common method of recovering the valuable metals – expose those nearby to a toxic stew of chemicals. Ground soil and groundwater around mountains of e-waste quickly become contaminated. According to the World Health Organization, children are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of exposure and are often in contact with these chemicals at dumpsites near home, school and where they play.
What to do? There are three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. Think hard about buying that new cell phone/laptop/tablet that’s being advertised. The less you buy, the less e-waste you generate. Learn how to keep your devices in peak performance mode – when your computer slows due to malware or clutter, it’s tempting to throw up your hands and just buy a new one. Here, from Lifehacks, are 26 ways to keep your computer humming. With regular “maintenance” computers can last for many years, and stay current through software updates – the emergence of cloud computing has made that even easier. Your device becomes simply a portal to cloud-based software and storage, which are e-waste-free and constantly updated. No need to replace the hardware every year, and far less e-waste. When you have reduced and reused as much as feasible, and you do need to replace your electronics, make sure you recycle the old devices responsibly. The EPA offers great suggestions for recycling and donating your old equipment, including an extensive list of retailers and manufacturers who offer recycling options.