Electronic waste known as e-waste, e-scrap, and end-of-life electronics, is a term often used to describe used electronics that are nearing the end of their useful life and are discarded, donated, or given to a recycler. The environmental impacts of electronic waste cannot be left unaddressed, as its threats affect not only the environment but also the life forms found in it.
The UN defines e-waste as any discarded product with a battery or plug that features toxic and hazardous substances, such as mercury, that can pose a severe risk to human and environmental health.
E-waste contains valuable materials, as well as hazardous toxins, which makes the efficient material recovery and safe recycling of e-waste extremely important for economic value as well as environmental and human health.
This can include computers, monitors, televisions, stereos, copiers, printers, fax machines, cellphones, DVD players, cameras, batteries, and many more electronic devices. Used electronic devices can be reused, resold, salvaged, recycled, or disposed of.
According to the UN, in 2021, each person on the planet will produce an average of 7.6 kg of e-waste, meaning that a massive 57.4 million tons of e-waste will be generated worldwide. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) also indicates that e-waste is one of the world’s largest and most complex waste streams.
According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, the world generated 53.6 Metric tons of e-waste in 2019, and only 9.3 Metric tons (17%) containing a mixture of harmful substances and precious materials were recorded as being collected, treated, and recycled
E-waste can be toxic, especially due to its non-biodegradable nature, thereby accumulating in the environment and affecting the soil, air, water, and living things. Many initiatives are undertaken to tackle this growing concern, but none of them can be fully effective without the active role and correct education of consumers.
Each year, International Electronic Waste Day is held on October 14. It serves as an opportunity to reflect on the impacts of e-waste and the necessary actions to enhance circularity for e-products. International E-Waste Day was developed in 2018 by the WEEE Forum to raise the public profile of waste electrical and electronic equipment recycling and encourage consumers to recycle.
In this article, we take a look at the impacts of e-waste on the environment. E-waste has several horrible impacts on the environment, and it is important to give your e-waste to an R2-certified recycling facility. Here are the environmental impacts of e-waste.
Table of Contents
Environmental Impacts of Electronic Waste
For example, open-air burning and acid baths being used to recover valuable materials from electronic components release toxic materials leaching into the environment.
These practices can also expose workers to high levels of contaminants such as lead, mercury, beryllium, thallium, cadmium, and arsenic, as also brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polychlorinated biphenyls, which can lead to irreversible health effects, including cancers, miscarriages, neurological damage, and diminished IQs. Therefore, listed and discussed are the environmental impacts of E-waste:
- Loss Of Resources
- Impact on Air Quality
- Impact on Soil
- Impact on Water Quality
- Impact on Biodiversity
- Impact on Human Health
- Climate Change
- Accumulation of Waste
- Impact on Agriculture
- Overflowing Landfill
1. Loss Of Resources
Many of the electronics we use each day are made of precious metals, of which there is a limited supply in the world. When electronics are tossed away and not recycled, these valuable resources are wasted when they could have been reused. When new products are created, we need to again find these materials, which won’t always be available to us once we use them all up.
According to the report, the improper handling of e-waste is resulting in a significant loss of scarce and valuable raw materials, including such precious metals as neodymium (vital for magnets in motors), indium (used in flat panel TVs) and cobalt (for batteries).
In 2015, the extraction of raw materials accounted for 7% of the world’s energy consumption. Almost no rare earth minerals are extracted from informal recycling; these are polluting to mine. Yet metals in e-waste are difficult to extract; for example, total recovery rates for cobalt are only 30% (despite technology existing that could recycle 95% of it).
The metal is, however, in great demand for laptops, smartphones, and electric car batteries. Recycled metals are also two to 10 times more energy efficient than metals smelted from virgin ore.
2. Impact on Air Quality
One of the most common effects of E-waste on the environment is air pollution. E-waste can pollute the air when improperly shredded, melted, or burned. These practices release dust particles or toxins, such as dioxins, into the environment and cause air pollution.
The chemicals released while burning e-waste can travel thousands of miles and cause serious health concerns for all living things. E-waste of little value is often burned, but burning also serves as a way to get valuable metals from electronics, like copper. However, this burning exposes those in the area to the toxins in the air because it quickly and easily spreads across the region and beyond.
When these toxins are released into the air, they can travel for miles. This can lead to multiple people being forced to breathe in contaminated air, leading to further problems such as respiratory concerns.
Chronic diseases and cancers are at a higher risk of occurring as a result. Higher-value materials, such as gold and silver, are often removed from highly integrated electronics by using acids, desoldering, and other chemicals, which also release fumes in areas where recycling is not properly regulated.
The negative effects of informal e-waste recycling on the air are most dangerous for those who handle this waste, but the pollution can extend thousands of miles away from recycling sites.
For instance, an informal recycling hub in Guiyu, China, was formed by parties interested in extracting valuable metals from e-waste and subsequently caused the region to have extremely high lead levels in the air, which are inhaled and then ingested when returned to water and soil.
This can cause disproportionate neurological damage to larger animals, wildlife, and humans in the area.
3. Impact on Soil
One of the most obvious ways that e-waste affects the environment is through the soil. When the improper disposal of e-waste occurs in regular landfills or in places where it is dumped illegally, both heavy metals and flame retardants can leach directly from the e-waste into the soil, causing contamination of underlying groundwater or contamination of crops that may be planted nearby or in the area in the future.
According to research, 70% of toxic waste in landfills comes from e-waste. Many landfills are becoming increasingly strict in refusing to handle e-waste.
Also, when large particles are released from burning, shredding, or dismantling e-waste, they quickly re-deposit to the ground and contaminate the soil as well, due to their size and weight. The amount of soil that is contaminated depends on a range of factors, including temperature, soil type, pH levels, and soil composition.
When the soil is contaminated by heavy metals, it can be harmful to microorganisms in the soil and plants as a result of exposure to the toxins. Ultimately, animals and wildlife relying on nature for survival will end up consuming affected plants, causing internal health problems.
4. Impact on Water Quality
After soil contamination, toxins can eventually make their way into nearby water. Heavy metals from improperly disposed of e-waste, such as mercury, lithium, lead, and barium, can leach through the earth, even reaching the groundwater. When these heavy metals reach groundwater, they eventually make their way into ponds, streams, rivers, and lakes.
Local communities often depend on these bodies of water and groundwater. Heavy metal contamination makes clean drinking water for animals and humans problematic to find. Furthermore, when organisms consume this metal, it is stored in trace amounts, accumulates over time, and is then passed up the food chain.
5. Impact on Biodiversity
The consequences of improper e-waste disposal in landfills or other non-dumping sites pose serious threats to the environment and can pollute ecosystems for generations to come. When electronic waste is thrown away in landfills their toxic materials seep into groundwater, affecting both land and sea animals.
Acidification from the leachate of the heavy metals can kill marine and freshwater organisms, disturb biodiversity, and harm ecosystems. If acidification is present in water supplies, it can damage ecosystems to the point where recovery is questionable, if not impossible. Aquatic wildlife can also suffer from toxic waste as a result of improper e-waste disposal.
Also, the air pollution caused by e-waste impacts some animal species more than others, which may be endangering these species and the biodiversity of certain regions that are chronically polluted. Over time, air pollution can hurt water quality, soil, and plant species, creating irreversible damage to ecosystems
6. Impact on Human Health
The environmental impact of e-waste is linked to a rise in a variety of health concerns. Electronic waste contains toxic components that are dangerous to human health, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, polybrominated flame retardants, barium, and lithium.
As it’s in our food and water, exposure to these toxins can pose adverse health effects on humans which include brain, heart, liver, kidney, and skeletal system damage, birth defects (irreversible), human blood contamination as well as central and peripheral nervous systems.
These toxins are carcinogenic and can also significantly affect the nervous and reproductive systems of the human body.
A WHO report on e-waste and child health, Children and Digital Dumpsites, released in June 2021, calls for urgent, effective, and binding action to protect the millions of children, adolescents, and expectant mothers worldwide whose health is jeopardized by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic devices.
Children exposed to e-waste are particularly vulnerable to the toxic chemicals they contain due to their smaller size, less developed organs, and rapid rate of growth and development. They absorb more pollutants relative to their size and are less able to metabolize or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies. making the children more vulnerable to e-waste exposure.
For example, in Guiyu, China, many of the residents exhibit substantial digestive, neurological, respiratory, and bone problems. This is the largest e-waste disposal site in China and quite possibly the world, Guiyu receives shipments of toxic e-waste from all over the world
7. Climate Change
It is also worth considering the effects that electronic waste has on climate change. Every device ever produced has a carbon footprint and is contributing to human-made global warming. Produce a tonne of laptops, and up to ten metric tons of CO2 are emitted. When the carbon dioxide released over a device’s lifetime is considered, it predominantly occurs during production, before consumers buy a product.
This makes lower carbon processes and inputs at the manufacturing stage (such as using recycled raw materials) and product lifetime key determinants of overall environmental impact. Also, in a bid to manage or dispose of e-waste by the means of burning, the fumes released, which are CO, NOX, SOX, etc., accumulate in the atmosphere, thereby triggering an increase in the earth’s temperature, which further leads to climate change.
8. Accumulation of Waste
Recycling rates globally are low. Even in the EU, which leads the world in e-waste recycling, just 35% of e-waste is officially reported as properly collected and recycled.
Globally, the average is 20%; the remaining 80% is undocumented, with much ending up buried under the ground for centuries as a landfill. E-waste is not biodegradable. The lack of recycling weighs heavily on the global electronic industry, and as devices become more numerous, smaller, and more complex, the issue escalates.
Currently, recycling some types of e-waste and recovering materials and metals is an expensive process. The remaining mass of e-waste, mainly plastics laced with metals and chemicals, poses a more intractable problem.
9. Impact on Agriculture
Agricultural land use is significantly impacted by soil and water pollution. Heavy metals and flame-retardant chemicals can stick around in crops. Livestock, wildlife, and human populations are at increased risk of consuming crops contaminated with these pollutants.
10. Overflowing Landfill
Finding effective recycling methods has become a major concern as the global population of electronic devices grows. About 50 million tons of e-waste are generated annually, and only 20% of that is recycled. While most of the remaining 80% ends up in the landfill, knowing full well that they are non-biodegradable, they accumulate and fill up the landfill over time.
E-waste is not a problem that is going away any time soon. It is only going to get worse. By 2017, the volume of our thrown-away e-products throughout the world is expected to rise by 33 percent from 2012, and we can expect the weight of this garbage to equal eight of the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
The amount of e-waste that we produce, including computers, DVD players, cellphones, and global positioning products, could rise by a whopping 500% over the next decade in countries such as India.
So, now that we have an idea of the impact of e-waste on the environment, we can dramatically work towards reducing these impacts. Therefore, to avoid these toxic effects of e-waste, it is essential to properly implement the circular economy so that items can be recycled, refurbished, resold, or reused. The growing stream of e-waste will only worsen if not educated on the correct measures of disposal.
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Ahamefula Ascension is a Real Estate Consultant, Data Analyst, and Content writer. He is the founder of Hope Ablaze Foundation and a Graduate of Environmental Management in one of the prestigious colleges in the country. He is obsessed with Reading, Research and Writing.