Hazardous Results of Electronic Waste

The Increasing challenges of E-Waste Management

A collection of E-Waste -Piled up old CRTs, stereo equipment, and computer systems.

A collection of E-Waste -Piled up old CRTs, stereo equipment, and computer systems.

Electronic waste or e-waste is one of the rapidly growing problems of the world. E-waste comprises of a multitude of components, some containing toxic substances that can have an adverse impact on human health and the environment if not handled properly. There are several countries that are suffering from the impact of electronic waste collections due to illegal shipments and improper disposal. Unlike many Western countries, 3rd-world nations like
India and China find that their e-waste management efforts assume greater significance. This due to not only their own society’s waste production, but also from the dumping of e-waste from other countries. It’s unfortunate, but many countries lack the appropriate infrastructure and procedures for proper disposal and recycling.

Workers in China stock piing old CRT monitors and TVs gathered from illegal importation. Photo by: LIU AIGUO - IMAGINECHINA

Workers in China stock piing old CRT monitors and TVs gathered from illegal importation. Photo by: LIU AIGUO - IMAGINECHINA

E-waste broadly covers waste from all electronic and electrical appliances and comprises of items such as computers, mobile phones, digital music recorders/players, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions (TVs) and many other household consumer items. Despite the help and service these items provide for our modern day society, there is a downside. The same hypertechnology that is hailed as a ‘crucial vector’ for future modern societal development has a not-so-modern downside to it: electronic waste (e-waste).

What is E-Waste

Electronic waste or e-waste is the term used to describe old, end-of-life electronic appliances such as computers, laptops, TVs, DVD players, mobile phones, mp3 players, etc., which have been disposed by their original users.

The production of electrical and electronic equipment is one of the fastest growing global manufacturing activities. Rapid economic growth, coupled with urbanization and a growing demand for consumer goods, has increased both the consumption and the production of electronic equipment and devices. New electronic gadgets and appliances have infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives, providing our society with more comfort, health and security and with easy information acquisition and exchange.

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For a better understanding of its global effects, e-waste has been categorized into three main categories, i.e., Large Household Appliances, IT and Telecom and Consumer Equipment. Refrigerator and washing machine represent large household appliances; PC, monitor and laptop represent IT and Telecom, while TV represents Consumer Equipment.

By using the categorization, each of these e-waste items has been classified with respect to 26 common components found in them. These components form the ‘building blocks’ of each item and therefore they are readily ‘identifiable’ and ‘removable.’ These components are metal, motor/ compressor, cooling, plastic, insulation, glass, LCD, rubber, wiring/electrical, concrete, transformer, magnetron, textile, circuit board, fluorescent lamp, incandescent lamp, heating element, thermostat, brominated flamed retardant (BFR)-containing plastic, batteries, CFC/HCFC/HFC/HC, external electric cables, refractory ceramic fibers, radioactive substances and electrolyte capacitors (over L/D 25 mm).

The Problems It Causes

The composition of e-waste is very diverse and differs in products across different categories. In general, electronic waste can contain more than 1000 different substances, which fall under ‘hazardous’ and ‘non-hazardous’ categories. Broadly, it consists of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, plastics, glass, wood and plywood, printed circuit boards, concrete and ceramics, rubber and other items. Iron and steel constitutes about 50% of e-waste, followed by plastics (21%), non-ferrous metals (13%) and other constituents. Non-ferrous metals consist of metals like copper, aluminium and precious metals, e.g. silver, gold, platinum, palladium, etc. The presence of elements like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium and hexavalent chromium and flame retardants beyond threshold quantities in e-waste classifies them as hazardous waste.

With the multitude of components used to make most electronic devices and some containing toxic substances, its no wonder that they would have an adverse impact on human health and the environment if not handled properly. Often, these hazards arise due to the improper recycling and disposal processes used. It can have serious repercussions for those in proximity to places where e-waste is recycled or burnt. A few items may not cause suck ill effects, however most do and have caused serious illnesses and poisoning to the environment. So, for a computer containing highly toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, BFR, polyvinyl chloride and phosphor compounds it is HIGHLY recommended that it is handled carefully by individuals trained in its care.

Network Agencies Working on the Problem

One good point, is that societies are not alone in their fight to handle the problems of e-waste. Over the past few decades, agencies have been developing that share visions of international environmental justice. Their existence is to assist with policy creating, activism, and spreading overall awareness of the issues.

The Basel Action Network (BAN) is a U.N. sanctioned, global network of development activists. This organization strives to champion global environmental health and justice by ending toxic trade, catalyzing a toxics-free future, and campaigning for everyone’s right to a clean environment. The network seeks to prevent all forms of ‘toxic trade’ – in toxic wastes, toxic products and toxic technologies. It works to prevent the globalization of the toxic chemical crisis. BAN is administered by the Secretariat services of the Asia-Pacific Environmental Exchange (APEX) based in Seattle, Washington, USA. APEX is an activity of the Tides Centre. Additionally, organizations such as the International Solid Waste Association, Solid Waste Association of North America, and Environmental Protection Agency seek to push environmental protection acts and fight for stronger policies to end global illegal dumping.

How to Help

A Professional Electronic Recycling Facility.

A Professional Electronic Recycling Facility.

The increase electronic waste crisis is not an impossible situation to handle, but it does call for more proactive actions from individuals and businesses that are inadvertently contributing to the problem.

For companies, the solutions for the e-waste crisis consist of a few steps:

  • ‘Prevention at the manufacturing source’ or the ‘precautionary principle.’ This can be done by employing waste minimization techniques and by a sustainable product design.

  • Extended Producer Responsibility is considered one of the most appropriate frameworks that amalgamates all the enlisted principles on environmental justice. This shifts the responsibility of safe disposal onto the producers.

    It promotes sound environmental technology and also aims at better raw material, cleaner production technology and designing for longevity.

    Producers must be responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products. In developed countries, several efforts have been made on this front. Several dozen cities in the states of California and Massachusettes, including San Francisco, also have passed resolutions supporting ‘producer take back’ rules.

  • Offering Electronic E-Waste community collection. Major companies like Wipro Infotech have launched an e-waste disposal service for end customers. While, others offering recycling options include Dell (dell.com), HP (hp.com) and Apple (apple.com).

  • Improved recycling techniques. Some recycling procedures require improvements, up-gradation (both in skills and technologies) and some have to be abandoned altogether due to severe risks for health and the environment.

  • Increased promotion of information regarding the overall impact of the situation. The current awareness regarding the existence and dangers of e-waste are extremely low, partly because the e-waste being generated is not as large as in developed countries. Urgent measures are required to address this issue.

In addition to the collective efforts of organizations and business trying to help solve the problem, individual consumers can contribute their efforts as well:

  • Donating electronics for reuse, which extends the lives of valuable products and keeps them out of the waste management system for a long time.

  • While buying electronic products, opting for those that are made with fewer toxic constituents, use recycled content, are energy efficient, are designed for easy upgrading or disassembly, use minimal packaging and offer leasing or take back options.

  • Building of consumer awareness through public awareness campaigns is a crucial point that can attribute to a new responsible kind of consumerism.

Unfortunately, many nations still stand unaware of the severity of the e-waste crisis. Seeing as though most of the issues exist in smaller or less developed countries, the urgency of the problem remains ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for more developed, richer nations. Yet, the need of the hour is an urgent approach to the e-waste hazard by technical and policy-level interventions, implementation and capacity building and increase in public awareness such that it can convert this challenge into an opportunity. It’s is imperative that the nation’s of today begin to focus on the future problems caused by e-waste and start to set global credible standards concerning environmental and occupational health.


-This article was created using full excerpts from the NCBI Journal resource, “E-Waste Hazard: The Impending Challenge” by Violet N. Pinto. The original journal was published in the Indian Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine Journal Listing for the PMC, US National Library of Medicine - National Institute of Health. For more information and copyright disclaimer, visit - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2796756/

Citation:

Pinto V. N. (2008). E-waste hazard: The impending challenge. Indian journal of occupational and environmental medicine12(2), 65–70. doi:10.4103/0019-5278.43263

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