The human race has evolved to the point where we’re steeped in electronic devices. From staying connected to washing our clothes and maintaining the temperature inside our homes, every aspect of our lives relies on some form of electronic device. This sort of advancement isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The problem is when these devices break down. Instead of recycling them, which allows manufacturers to reclaim the rare earth metals that make them function, most of them end up in landfills.
Experts estimate that the human race generates 50 million tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, every year. That’s roughly equal to throwing away 1,000 laptops every second of every day. According to the EPA, only about 12.5% of that waste makes it to recycling. Everything else ends up dumped in landfills, leaching potentially toxic heavy metals and chemicals into the environment.
What sort of impact does all this non-recycled e-waste have on the planet?
Toxic Chemicals Leaching Into the Environment
Electronics rely on a significant amount of potentially toxic chemicals to function. Under normal circumstances, these are all contained within the device and don’t pose a threat.
But once a device gets discarded, there’s the potential for these substances to leach out into the environment. Your average electronic device contains:
This is not a comprehensive list of the potentially harmful substances present in this type of waste.
When phones and other electronics get discarded and sent to landfills, these chemicals can escape, contaminating soil and local water supplies. In areas where e-waste gets thrown in the incinerator, the smoke can contain these same substances, contributing to dangerous air pollution.
Health Impacts of Non-Recycled E-Waste
Encountering these toxic chemicals in small doses usually isn’t harmful. But as concentrations grow, they can cause any number of negative health impacts. Studies have found that exposure to non-recycled e-waste can contribute to thyroid dysfunctions, problems with fetal development, negative birth outcomes and lung problems, just to name a few.
There is even evidence that these substances can alter the human body on a cellular level, leading to other complications in the future. As we generate more and more electronic waste, this risk will continue to grow. It also has the potential to affect non-human populations in a similar fashion, causing health problems and damaging ecosystems around the globe.
Overseas Disposal Is Not the Answer
Much of the e-waste the modern world discards gets shipped to Asia and Africa under the guise of recycling, but much of it isn’t. In fact, a large portion of the recyclable electronics that get shipped overseas end up in landfills and incinerators. According to the United Nations, in 2013, roughly 70% of the planet’s e-waste ended up in China, often through illegal channels.
Workers, many of them children, spend their days sorting through fields and mountains of electronic waste. This leaves them vulnerable to exposure to the toxic chemicals mentioned above. Recycling might sound like a good thing, but when it’s done improperly, it ends up creating toxic byproducts that are harmful to local environments.
What Should You Do With Old Electronics?
If you’ve got an old cell phone or laptop that you need to discard, what should you do with it to prevent it from contributing to the growing amount of non-recycled e-waste on our planet?
First, never throw e-waste in the garbage. If you’ve got the option for functional devices, pass them on for reuse or refurbishment — after erasing your personal information, of course.
Find a good e-waste recycling program that doesn’t ship your devices overseas. You also have the option of learning how to fix these devices yourself, though that is becoming more challenging as new cell phones and their associated companies make changes to ensure that replacement is your only option.
On a larger scale, consider participating in a zero-waste event. These happen every year and are valuable tools to encourage people to consciously think about the amount of waste they’re generating on a daily basis. Going even a week without creating waste is more challenging than you might expect.
Finally, we also need to encourage the younger generations — the ones growing up steeped in technological advancement — to be aware of the impact e-waste has on the planet. School-level events are a great way to accomplish this, especially since so many school-aged children already have cell phones and laptops of their own.
Looking Toward a Cleaner Future
Electronics aren’t going away anytime soon. As a result, neither is e-waste. If we want to leave a better world for our children, and the generations that haven’t been born yet, we need to start now. Recycling is the best option for electronic waste disposal, but we need to do a lot better than we are right now.