E-waste is one of the most dangerous and serious problems that we have in our society. It is also called electronic waste, or portions of electronic devices that are no longer useful, and are instead thrown away.
These items often contain dangerous chemicals and other materials, which can lead to harm to people and the environment. One of the biggest issues in e-waste disposal is the fact that the majority of the e-waste is generated by developed countries, but the waste is shipped to developing countries for disposal.
More on why this is such a dangerous and borderline unethical problem below!
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If you are passionate about protecting the environment, and making sure that people who damage it are the ones that are responsible for dealing with its consequences, you need to know related vocabulary.
Below are some of the vocabulary and phrases related to e-waste, so that you can better understand news stories about the issue!
E-waste is the leftover parts of electronics, especially computers, phones, and other machines, that are no longer useful.
Most of the time, old devices are thrown away because they are outdated, and people do not know that the machines they throw away can have dangerous chemicals in them.
Even when people are aware of this issue and try to recycle their old electronics, sometimes the company that collects them is not responsible with that material.
Instead of breaking down the whole machine and putting them in the appropriate reuse piles, they sometimes extract only the useful metals.
These metals can fetch high prices when they are resold, so these companies sometimes will take only the metals that are useful for resale, and dump the rest.
- E-waste is one of the largest categories of trash in the world.
- The danger of e-waste is the chemicals that it contains, from lead to flame retardants, that can be extremely harmful if a person or animal ingests them.
Obsolete electronic devices
Electronic devices that are obsolete are no longer useful. They are the reason that we have so much e-waste, because old versions of computers, phones, and other devices are replaced by newer, faster, and better versions.
- No one wanted to buy the TV set from 2005 so it became an obsolete electronic device.
- E-waste is made of both obsolete electronic devices and broken ones.
A waste that is biodegradable is one that can be broken down by natural organisms into chemicals and returned to the earth naturally.
Most things that are biodegradable are either things that grow naturally (think trees, people, etc.) or are made with minimal processing.
- Biodegradable waste can actually be used as compost, helping other plants grow rather than sitting in a landfill taking up space.
- As more people become environmentally aware, things that are biodegradable are becoming more common (such as flushable baby wipes).
Things that are toxic are poisonous. They can harm either (or both!) the environment itself and any animal or plant that comes into contact with it.
For example, lead can cause human babies to develop problems with their nervous system, so anything that has lead in it is highly toxic and must be disposed of carefully.
- Some foods are made with toxic chemicals that can cause cancer, so you have to be careful about what you eat!
- As we use more complex technologies and process more things, especially foods, we are exposed to more and more toxic.
A bale of trash or rubbish is a cube that has been compressed together. To save space in landfills, governments and companies often create bales of trash so that they can fit more into the limited space.
What can happen, however, is that dangerous chemicals are crushed out from their original cases and can get into the environment as a result.
- There are about fourteen bales worth of rubbish here.
- The bales of hay are sitting in the sun; once they are dry we can feed them to the animals.
The ecological footprint is a collective measure. It shows the impact of everything – including natural fluctuations and human-led causes – on the environment.
Most of the world’s ecological footprint comes from consumption, and as people begin to use more electricity and other natural resources, the number increases. It is typically measured in area of wilderness or amount of natural capital consumed each year.
- As the world’s population approaches 8 billion, our collective ecological footprint will also rise exponentially, especially as people get more and more access to technology.
- We need to be mindful of our ecological footprint so that we know what impact we have on the world.
How E-Waste Impacts the Human Population?
Below are some words and phrases that help you understand how e-waste affects people, and what people could do instead of throwing away their old electronics.
As a whole, sustainability is the long term viability of something. For humans, it is important have sustainable processes because our population is only increasing and expanding.
Part of sustainability in e-waste means reusing parts that are too old for reuse, or collecting important metals and making them into other devices.
- The sustainability of the technology industry will only become a bigger and bigger issue.
- One way to enhance sustainability of technology is to make parts easier to fix when they need repair.
The environmental impact of something is similar to its ecological footprint. It is the way that the person or thing influences the environment around them.
This often is used for activities that require large amounts of energy (think manufacturing or heating) and can refer either to individual things or an industry as a whole.
Sometimes, especially if you are measuring the environmental impact for later reference, it refers to how a public policy or building project will affect the land around it.
Most of the time, the environmental impact is bad, putting pollutants in the air, leading to shortened lifespans for wildlife, etc.
The reason that so much of the e-waste generated in rich countries is shipped to poorer countries is because the environmental impact would be too great if it were left in that country.
- The environmental impact assessment is a standardized test that measures how a policy, plan, industry, etc. will harm the environment.
- If the environmental impact of a new proposed policy fails the assessment, it will have a very hard time getting support to pass.
Hazardous waste is waste that is harmful or sometimes poisonous. It can affect people, natural resources (including air and water), and animals in harmful ways, so it needs to be treated carefully.
This is especially true of older e-waste, since it is liable to contain many hazardous (dangerous) chemicals.
- It is usually the government’s job to treat hazardous waste because it is so dangerous and difficult to treat.
A landfill is a piece of land under which trash or rubbish is buried. The purpose of this is to put it somewhere safe, where it will not affect the surrounding environment.
However, there is always possibility that landfills could leak, sending harmful materials into the air or water.
That is why they are often built in places with poor people, which can create a humanitarian problem. If e-waste is put into a regular landfill, leaching (see next word) can happen.
- Landfills must be properly managed, or they can destroy an environment.
- Even though it only holds trash, a landfill can be very expensive to maintain.
Leaching is what happens when a landfill starts to leak. This could be because the original lining that was meant to keep the trash in has a hole, or if there is naturally corrosive material that eats through that lining and creates the hole.
Either way, dirty liquid can get into the water supply easily this way and cause an entire city or country to be sick. That is why it is always better to recycle your old batteries rather than throw them in the trash.
- The liquids that leached into the local water supply caused a huge public health problem for the city, and they had to evacuate people.
- Lead leached into the groundwater, causing it to be undrinkable.
A dumping ground is similar to a landfill in that it holds a lot of trash. The main difference is that dumping grounds usually come out of poverty and lack of awareness about environmental impacts.
When people live in a place that does not have a centralized waste collection system, they must find their own methods of “taking out the trash”. If you are extremely tired one day, you may just let yourself go to sleep without working on that thing.
This happens in poor and rural areas, where people also may not know how living next to large mountains of trash will affect their health and environment. This is especially tricky to manage when some dumping grounds have e-waste in them.
In some places (such as Guiyu, China), people make a living by foraging in these dumping grounds and picking out computer parts to sell; their livelihood depends on it.
- Living next to a dumping ground is a clear health hazard.
- Developed countries typically have no dumping grounds because sanitation, including clean water and air, are one of the first functions that must be addressed in a community.
One of the only things more dangerous than dumping your e-waste is incinerating it. Incineration is the process of burning trash, which can reduce a large volume of it into ashes.
However, there are almost always dangerous chemicals in that waste. To burn it means to release those chemicals into the air, which people living in the area will then breathe in and could get sick from.
For electronics that contain such harmful chemicals as cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants, incineration can be environmentally devastating.
- The reason house prices are so low in this area is because the incineration plant it right next to it.
- It rarely makes sense to incinerate waste, but there are exceptions to every rule.
Recycling is taking materials that you no longer will use and creating new products out of it. The most well known examples of this is plastic and paper recycling.
You can take these materials and melt them down, using that liquid to craft new products. This is especially important for e-waste, because minerals such as silicon are not easy to find in nature.
- My school just installed a new recycling program in an attempt to be more environmentally aware.
- My daughter learned about recycling in school today, and she has become obsessed with it.
In an effort to overcome e-waste generation, some governments have tried to implement different policies. Some places, especially in developing countries where the need for cell phones is high, use modular cell phones or Phonebloks.
These are phones that can be assembled piece by piece. If there is one broken part, there is no need to throw the whole phone away. Instead, you can simply dissemble the phone and replace the broken piece.
Efforts like these are part of the Zero Waste movement. Advocates of the movement try to get people to reuse or recycle all of their waste, especially potentially harmful waste like e-waste.
- Since the city implemented its Zero Waste project, the waste collection department has seen collections drop almost 30%.
- People who believe in Zero Waste sometimes go to extreme lengths to reuse their trash.
Materials recovery facility
A materials recovery facility is a place where things that have many parts (such as cell phones and computers) can be broken down.
The materials recovery facility’s job is to take these complex things and break them down so that the truly valuable materials (including plastics and silicon in electronics) can be reused.
- My father works as a manager at the materials recovery facility.
- The city contracted a materials recovery facility to help them with the increased supply load.
The recycling rate of a group of people (usually a country, city, or other region) is how much of the waste that is generated is recycled – regardless of if it can be recycled or not.
For example, the United States in 2014 generated about 258 million tons of waste. Only 34.6% of that was recycled (compared to over 60% in countries like Austria and Germany).
The recycling rate reflects not only how important reusing materials is to a country, but also how educated its people are about what recycling is, how they can do it, and how important it is to environmental preservation.
- The recycling rate of electronics is relatively high, but every device not recycled is one that ends up in a landfill.
- The target recycling rate of countries should be 80% or higher for electronics.
The process of upcycling is similar to recycling, except it is usually done directly by individuals. They take their waste and try to come up with creative ways to reuse them.
The end result is typically very aesthetically pleasing. An example is using old computer chips and making them into earrings or art that you can hang on the wall.
- At the flea market, I saw several upcycled planters that were beautifully decorated, and bought three of them.
- The city turned some plastics into an upcycled art piece that turned into a major tourist attraction.
Instead of making art, like upcycling, reprocessing is the process of taking reclaimed materials (from recycling and reusing) and making them into new products.
It is similar to recycling, but the key difference is that reprocessing usually aims to take out toxicity or other dangerous properties of the waste.
- Reprocessing can be an important part of recycling and reusing e-waste.
- For some dangerous waste, including nuclear waste, reprocessing allows the majority of the waste to be disposed normally, saving both energy and money in the recycling process.
Another way to treat e-waste is exporting it to other countries. Strictly economically, this can work out for both parties. Usually this happens when the richer country has more waste than it wants to bury in landfills itself, for environmental, health, or other reasons.
Because it can offer money for each bit of waste it ships to another country, many developing or poorer countries are willing to accept it. If they are able to put it in a safe place (away from its citizens and wildlife) then it is a great solution for all.
This does not always end up being the case, but physically moving and exporting waste is a common way of treating it.
- If you can afford it, why would you not export waste to another country?
- The way that it actually works, exportation can create massive inequality and contribute to a system of global inequality.
In the context of e-waste, developing countries are those that are typically willing to accept the waste. This is because they have land and a need for the money that the waste producers are willing to give.
If the government of that country is willing and able to put that waste in a place far away from its people, this arrangement could be beneficial.
- Do not think that developing countries don’t produce e-waste, because they do!
- In general, developing countries may have to compete with one another to accept lower and lower amounts of money to receive e-waste from other countries.
A developed country is one that has a more robust economy, and is typically well off so that they can pay other countries to store their e-waste.
One of the big drivers of e-waste creation is Moore’s law. This is a law in computer science that states that, about every two years, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles.
This means that progress in technology, especially in hardware (the physical machines) is extremely fast. In two years, the chips that you have in your computer could be only half as fast as the ones other people have!
Part of this leads to having to replace these chips over and over, generating large amounts of waste.
- Moore’s law is called a law but it is actually an observation; as technology progresses it seems less likely that the trend will continue at the speed it has so far.
- There is so much e-waste created in part because of the effects of Moore’s law.
Similar to Moore’s law, Kryder’s law concerns the progress of technological advancement. Mark Kryder, the law’s namesake, saw that hard disks had increased their capacity 1,000-fold in 15 years.
He predicted that, at this rate, a two-platter, 2.5-inch disk drive that could hold 40 terabytes of storage would cost only $40.
- Kryder’s law was a bit too ambitious, but it did show how quickly technological advancement was being made.
- At the current rate, we would need over 80% improvement per year to reach the Kryder’s law.
Ways E-Waste Presents an Ethical Problem:
If developed countries are able to export their e-waste to developing countries, that could be exploitation. In other words, they could be taking advantage of the other countries. This is because e-waste is inherently toxic, and could be dangerous to the environment.
Instead of dealing with the costs of it themselves, the developed countries are sending the risks off for poorer populations to suffer the consequences.
While money can make up some of the cost, e-waste’s damage to a country’s environment and public health environment cannot always be compensated with money.
To make things worse is to let those countries have a bidding war, pushing the price of creating so much e-waste lower and lower for the developed country.
This is akin to a new form of colonialism, where developed countries become richer (and healthier) because they take advantage of the other countries.
- With e-waste disposal and anything else, you need to be aware that you are not exploiting the generosity of other people.
- Some e-waste export deals are so close to exploitation it is almost an ethical dilemma.
Shanty towns come out of times when there is a strong need for housing, but little ability to provide it. As a result, the dwellings are improvised, put together so people have a roof over their heads.
These may lack sanitation systems, safe water, electricity, and other resources. They are often meant to be temporary, but can grow to become large areas of town. They are different from slums because slums are permanent structures.
These shanty towns sometimes arise from a rush of people coming towards piles of e-waste, hoping to stay temporarily while they make a quick buck.
- Most of the residents of this shanty town spend their day at the e-waste pile, trying to pick out something that could make it worth their time.
- Living in this shanty town prevents children from being able to get an education, and they often get sick because of the lack of clean water and separate bathroom facilities.
There are many health risks to being near e-waste, and diseases that result are disorders. This is in part because of the chemicals that are abundant in electronics.
These include copper, lead, dioxins, chromium, tin, gold, silver, and plastics. Long term exposure to these chemicals leads to all kinds of problems.
For example, they include loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, stomach pain, vomiting, constipation and learning difficulties in children.
Symptoms in adults include high blood pressure, decline in mental functioning, pain/numbness of extremities, muscle weakness, headache, stomach pain, memory loss, mood disorders and fertility problems including higher probability of miscarriages for women.
Lead also damages the kidneys and the nervous system.
- Common disorders from exposure to lead are sleep problems and nervous system problems.
- There are countless types of disorders that result from exposure to burned plastics.
One of the biggest e-waste sites in the world is in Guiyu, a small town in the Guangdong Province of China. It used to be a rice village, until economic incentives made it the place to store electronic waste.
There was a lot of economic incentive for Guiyu to accept this waste, and the poverty widespread in the area led them to welcome some of the e-waste. This was before they knew of the health effects of being so close and working with the e-waste every day.
In 2005, more than 50,000 workers processed over 100 truckloads of lead, gold, copper, and other metals for resale. They unfortunately made only $1.50 per day.
The environmental effects have been measured and publicized, as the pollution leads to lead poisoning, especially among children, high levels of miscarriages by women, and many nervous system problems due to the toxins.
- Guiyu has been the target of many UNEP, Greenpeace, and other nonprofit groups’ humanitarian efforts.
- Cleanup projects have been started by the Chinese government for the area, but there remain significant amounts of waste in Guiyu.
Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana
Another significant site of e-waste is the Agbogbloshie district of Accra, Ghana in Western Africa.
What happened there is similar to the situation in Guiyu. There, however, the situation is less clear. There is confusion as to whether that waste comes from imported sources or from other parts of Ghana.
- The government in Ghana must be careful when they handle Agbogbloshie, because they do not want it to become a public health hazard.
- More and more people are moving out of Agbogbloshie to avoid the health problems they can get from staying there.