September 10, 2015 | Amy Smith, MS, and Tyra Hall-Pogar, PhD
Electronic waste, known as e-waste, is an ever-increasing problem worldwide. Levels of electronics consumption are high in both developed and developing countries, and many consumer electronics are designed with short life spans. Once an electronic item has reached its end of use, what happens? While some electronics are recycled, many are discarded in landfills. Even those that are recycled face a dubious fate. Who is ultimately responsible for fixing our e-waste problem?
Electronics are filled with chemicals and substances that are harmful to human health and the environment, including toxic metals, flame retardants, and persistent organic pollutants.1, 2 If not recycled, these chemicals can contaminate landfills and enter the water supply through leachate. Even the recycling of e-waste is problematic. Much of the recycled e-waste is transported to recycling facilities specifically designed to separate the plastics, metals, and other chemicals for later use, if a market exists. Some of the processing used in e-waste recycling involves chemicals stronger than those in the items themselves. Workers in countries with more informal rules and structure, such as India and China, are seeing large increases in electronic waste and are particularly vulnerable to workplace hazards from e-waste recycling.3, 4
Another approach to restoring and removing toxic e-waste from the environment is through bioremediation. Bioremediation encompasses a variety of approaches including microbial remediation and phytoremediation. These biological methods have shown early success but are complex because of the mixed nature of the pollutants e-waste generates.5 Electronics can enter the waste stream at any time during their life cycle, and policy is slow to catch up to this ever-changing landscape.
We all use electronic devices, so we all play a role in the life cycle of e-waste. As consumers, we are often forced to purchase new equipment, even when the old devices are not dead, due to software upgrades, technology shifts, and trends. Should manufacturers bear more responsibility in ensuring that devices are sustainable? Electronics manufacturing has little economic incentive for sustainability because new customers drive business. Changes in manufacturing should be made to combat the problem of obsolescence.6 Governments also play a role because policies that encourage recycling, protect workers, and monitor the environment often lead to voluntary sustainability in the corporate sector.7
As you read this article on an electronic device, take a moment to consider the electronic waste you may generate this year. Remember, it is important to research how to recycle or properly dispose of electronic waste in your city. Increased education and awareness about the risks associated with electronics can play a valuable role in the continuing efforts to make the world we live in a safe place.