Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cause For Concern: Rising Rates Of E-Waste

Electronic waste or e-waste isn’t like municipal solid waste or industrial waste. It’s categorized all on it’s own and consists of discarded (most of the time into landfills) electronic materials including computers, TV’s, cell phones, printers, copiers, mice, get the picture! Basically it's any unwanted item that runs off of a power cord or batteries.
 According to the EPA, electronic waste makes up nearly 70% of heavy metals found within landfills (how awful is that? Especially since almost all metals are resources that can be reused)! These items contain toxic substances that can have devastating effects on all forms of life and despite the harmful effects associated with it, the rates of e-waste are increasing drastically. 

It’s no surprise that the electronics business is a trillion dollar industry, generating billions of dollars a year from consumer electronics. 300 million computers and over 1 billion cell phones are put into production each year and that number is expected to rise. From laptops and television sets in our homes, to music players in our ears and smart phones and video games in our hands, technology has deemed itself an integral part of America’s lifestyles.
Perpetual updates and advances in technology have caused the rate of obsolescence to grow to higher rates than ever seen before. These rates are continually rising because like many other things in this world, consumer electronics have been marketed by big companies as ‘disposable’ to make room for newer technologies. 
Customers would much rather throw out their broken items and replace them, rather than recycling or getting them repaired (understandable since the costs to repair generally exceed the costs to replace...hmm why is that?!). The TRUE costs of our disposable attitudes are only recognized by some, but soon enough everyone will begin to understand, hopefully before it’s too late! Companies’ desires for higher profits is leading to dangerous increases in the quantities of electronic waste being produced and the impacts can be seen and felt all over the globe, from our oceans to our atmosphere and everywhere in between. 

Yes! According to the Environmental Protection Agency, e-waste is the fastest growing source of waste in North America, with hundreds of millions of tons generated each year. Americans produce more than 50 million tons a year, with estimates of recycling rates at a mere 20%-25%, leaving 75% to be discarded in landfills. Even worse, it’s estimated that more than half of these materials that are disposed of are in good working order, consumers just discard them to make room for the latest technology. While these rates continue to grow, recycling rates continue to fall, which is the exact opposite of what should be occurring! Since 90%-95% of the components found within most electronics can be recycled and the benefits of recycling far outweigh the costs, these rates should (and NEED) to be much higher!

Well, you're about to be and I'm going to explain why! Electronic waste contains all kind of toxic substances including cadmium, lead, beryllium, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, mercury, barium, brominated flame retardants, phthalates, plastics and precious metals, all of which can cause serious harm to the environment and the living things that surround it. 
These chemicals and materials are not only toxic and incapable of biodegrading, they can also easily leach out of the lining of the landfill and contaminate surrounding air, soil and groundwater supplies (which ultimately affects our crops, grasses, plants and trees).
By not recycling your old or unwanted electrical devices and instead tossing them into a landfill, you’re basically asking for polluted water and soil! This pollution poses threats to the environment and its inhabitants, and is capable of causing endocrine disruptions, reproductive disorders, cancer and eventually death in living things that come in contact with it.
Besides the threat of pollution that’s associated with e-waste, there’s valuable resources and energy being wasted as well. Electronics are full of precious materials that can easily be recycled for reuse, which would in turn conserve energy. If they’re lying in a capped landfill hundreds of feet beneath the ground, how are we going to make use of them again?! The answer is, WE'RE NOT!
Instead, we're going to waste tremendous amounts of energy and resources to search for more raw materials. We’ll further disrupt the environment by mining for new metals; We'll delve deeper into our precious petroleum reserves to make more plastics and we’ll have no problem emitting more CO2 emissions and helping accelerate global warming! I mean this process has worked just fine in the past, so why not continue right? WRONG.. SO WRONG! If we can avoid all this damage to the environment by simply increasing our recycling efforts on a wider scale, then why aren’t we? (I don’t know about anyone else reading, but this really makes my blood boil!)

In addition to the reasons mentioned above, recycling is important for a number of other reasons. Since more items would be avoiding landfills, it reduces the need for landfill space and incinerators. From an economic point of view, it increases manufacturing needs, which in turn creates more jobs for US workers. Using recycled materials helps keep energy and production costs low. From an environmental view, recycling diminishes greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming and saves on energy usage. It conserves natural resources like wood, minerals and water and decreases the need for raw materials. Recycling helps to sustain the environment for future generations while creating an overall healthier habitat with less incidence of illnesses associated with the disposal of toxic materials.


You should visit your local recycling center and determine which items are and aren’t accepted. Once you’ve established what items you’re going to recycle, it’s best to designate and label individual bins for each material. Personally, I think just about everything can and should be recycled in some way or another, but it’s going to be a few more years for society to begin to think like me! 
Fortunately, household recycling is nothing new and there’s quite a few items that have a pretty good recycle rate. Some of the common household items that you can (and should) recycle include plastics, glass, cardboard, newsprint and other paper products, aluminum, steel and even food scraps yard trimmings. 
Recycling allows used materials to be made into other goods with less energy use. Some of the types of items that are created from recyclables include egg cartons, packaging, building insulation and writing paper, all of which are made from recycled newsprint. Aluminum and steel food cans can be recycled to make new cans, siding for houses, construction beams, appliances and automotive parts. Lawn furniture and planting materials can be made from used plastic jugs and containers and recycled glass can be turned into paving materials, new glassware or decorative tiling. 
Recycling is not limited to the items mentioned above, even components of electronics contain various materials that can be easily recycled. For example, computers are 99% recyclable, from the outer plastic right down to the circuit boards!
         The polypropylene plastic can be recycled to make textiles and packaging; the metals located within the circuit boards like copper and aluminum can be re-smelted and re-manufactured and the precious gold, silver and palladium can all be recovered for reuse; even the lead found within the CRT glass can be extracted and re-smelted for use in other lead products.
Improving your recycling efforts at home is a great place to start, but there’s a lot more efforts you can be making to have a stronger impact. While recycling is a large part of the market, buying recycled products is what “closes the loop” and creates the market demand for recycled products. This ensures that the materials we recycle are actually put to use! There’s close to 5,000 products that can be constructed from recycled materials, so it’s extremely important to look for the recycle symbol or some type of indication that what you’re purchasing is actually made from post consumer recycled content (the higher the percentage, the better).
Some of the items to look out for are recycled cardboard packaging used in cereals, snack foods, cake mixes, frozen dinners and dry pet foods. Plastics used for liquid laundry detergent bottles, soaps, shampoos and household cleaners are also great recycled items to purchase. Recycled paper products such as napkins, toilet paper, paper plates and cups and facial tissues are always easy to identify and are considered to be ‘sustainable' purchases. 

I’m in no way trying to sit here and preach all my beliefs on you all! If anything I just want to make everyone aware of the areas of concern around electronic waste and recycling in general. If you take anything out of this post, I’d hope you’d at least realize that there are ramifications for your actions; some may be positive (in the case of shopping responsibly and doing your part to recycle) and others may have devastating effects on the planet it’s natural systems (i.e. environmental degradation, pollution, declining biodiversity etc.) It’s your choice, but the fate of this e-waste epidemic (and our planet) is in your hands! I hope you choose to do the right thing...

 I'll be taking a closer look at how e-waste is handled over seas and the effect it's having on the quality of life in developing countries.



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