The Emerging Problem of Toxic E-Waste

By Chris Redmayne

The impacts of e-waste on our environment are having detrimental effects on our soil, air and water.

The 21st Century has arguably gone into some kind of technological overdrive. The consensus around consumerism has never been more mixed. On the one hand, you have traditionalists who respect the digital renaissance which is much in the favour of those individuals financially invested or crafting these advancements way into the future. But for a large body of people and some indications by science, there is a level ignorance and substantial panic that comes with supporting this now millennial problem.

Per-Olov Johansson, a professor at the Stockholm School of Economics and Trade Union Institute for Economic Research affirmed that “most environmental services... do not appear as costs to the firm or individual”. In regards to a market perspective, environmental damage is quite difficult to measure. Furthermore, the big boss or ‘decision maker’ in charge of the environmental operation, is willing to put no value upon the damage that is inflicted, until there is reason for the company or individual to be charged for it.

Simply put, these people are not going to take responsibility for environmental concerns, on top of the dangers aimed toward persons involved with either production or waste cycles, unless there’s monetary or ‘reputational’ risk. ‘Somebody has to pay for loss-making waste’ remarks Janet Gunter, co-founder of _The Restart Project_. She accuses larger organisations for evading pursuits of “economically viable” options for recycling.

There is new phenomenon that has been coined “e-waste”, a term which best describes the abandonment or wastage of electronic devices or utilities, similar to that of other forms to waste. What differentiates this from other forms of waste, are consequences related to the disposal of these items.

As mentioned before, there are people that attempt to combat the mass wastage of the electronic resources. In a comment from a member at The Restart Project, Ugo Vallauri, he alleged that the environmentally friendly company, which reuses tech rather than recklessly disposing it, has run repair events for 6 years. Laptops come as the top repaired product, shortly followed by mobile phones, lamps and then small kitchen appliances.

In addition, it was mentioned that over 50% percent of products are repairable, 20% are at the end of life span (or are difficult to repair) and 25% are repairable, albeit some components needed for a complete fix. Some businesses work with Restart Project to this innovative approach recycling and are “championed” as creative companies. Ugo also added that Restart Project are pushing for “EU equal design legislation”, which advocates products from the European Union being easier to disassemble, in effect making repairs easier.

Unlike food which usually decomposes or degrades, there is a sinister factor involved here. In an assessment review on the matter, it is noted that “electronic waste... is an emerging problem... given the volumes of e-waste being generated and the content of both toxic and valuable materials in them.” Considering that most electronic devices or means are potentially mere “upgrades” or “downgrades”, they may contain different materials in them comparably.

The impacts on environment are said to have detrimental effects on soil, air and water, in a number of ways. Electronics contain valuable metals and some methods of retrieval are drastic. These methods tend to release hydrocarbons or toxins into the air. In Beijing, informal workers doing e-recycling aren’t fully protected to these dangers. In order to extract valuable aluminium and silver from copper wires, acid baths are made. In this process, workers are exposed dioxins... hexavalent chromium, brominated flame retardants...and heavy metals. In small towns where this takes place, children are far more likely to suffer ill effects.

Alternatively, carelessly disposed phones that are chucked into lakes or ponds can have consequences. Lost of small communities rely on natural water sources to sustain themselves and these toxins can also penetrate soil. Defects to bodily organs can happen and as mentioned before, young children are the most vulnerable.

There is a figurative ticking clock on the world’s ability to combat substantial environmental damage and dangers. Although these hazards may seem small compared to the ice-caps melting and air pollution in major cities breaking records, it is still a responsibility worth considering. It’s only in retrospect, when one realises that some liberties have been taken for granted.

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