The E-Waste Crisis Introduction

Electronic equipment and gadgets are the fastest growing waste stream in many countries. For many, electronics are part of modern life – cell phones, laptops, TVs and a growing number of gadgets. Every year we buy new, updated equipment to support our needs and wishes – in 2012, global sales of new equipment included 238.5 million televisions, 444.4 million computers and tablets, and 1.75 billion mobile phones (Gartner). All of these electronics become obsolete or unwanted, often within 1- 3 years of purchase. This global mountain of waste is expected to continue growing 8% per year, indefinitely (BCC Research).

In 2008, CBS 60 minutes ran this award winning documentary on the e-waste crisis.

Why Should We Be Concerned About Old Electronics?

Electronic waste isn’t just waste — it contains some very toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants. When the latter are burned at low temperatures, they create additional toxins, such as halogenated dioxins and furans – some of the most toxic substances known to humankind. The toxic materials in electronics can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, and many other health problems if this waste stream is not properly managed. Many of the toxic constituents are elements, which means they never disappear, even though they may change form. Other toxic chemicals in electronics do not break down over time, instead accumulating in the food chain and biosphere. Not only do these toxins present risks to communities and the global ecosystem, but also to electronics recycling workers around the world. 

But What Happens to the E-Waste?

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of e-waste is recycled. Even when we take it to a recycling center, if available, there is no guarantee that it is actually recycled – not in the way most of us think of that term.

A small percentage of e-waste is estimated to be sent to recyclers. In the U.S., this is as little as 11-14%. The remainder is most often dumped or burned – either in formal landfills and incinerators, or informally dumped or burned. These inappropriate disposal methods for electronic waste fail to reclaim valuable materials or manage the toxic materials safely. In effect, our soil, water, and air are easily contaminated.

An estimated 70-80% of the e-waste that’s given to recyclers is exported to countries with developing economies, in effect externalizing the real costs of managing hazardous waste and products. Once there, primitive technologies such as open air burning and riverside acid baths are used to extract a few materials. The rest of the toxic materials are usually dumped. Unlike other countries in the world, the U.S. sends a significant portion of its hazardous e-waste to U.S. prisons to be processed in less-regulated environments without the worker protections and rights afforded in the private sector. Moreover, such operations amount to government subsidies, undermining the development of responsible private-sector recycling infrastructure and distorting the economics of recycling.

Confidential Data Exposed to the World

When turning over an old computer to a recycler, we are also passing on customer data, unless all memory devices have been ‘wiped’ of data. In fact, in a 2009 study, everything from bank records to classified missile test results were found on a random sample of hard drives on eBay. The Ponemon Institute estimates that 70% of data breaches come from offline computers, usually after they have been disposed of by the equipment owner.

There is a Solution!

E-waste has been a problem for years, but the explosive growth in our use of technology makes it a crisis today.

It doesn’t have to be like this – we can do better.

We’re not going to stop making and using high tech equipment but we can stop dumping e-waste on others and harming them and our shared environment. Find out about the e-Stewards solution.

e-Stewardship: Taking Responsibility in the Digital Age:

12-minute film on the e-waste crisis and the e-Stewards solution