Change for the Future
PHS 100 – Environmental Studies
Warner Pacific College
December 1, 2012
Change for the Future
Technology is everywhere: at home, in the car, at the office, even sometimes inside the human body. Technology has profoundly improved the quality of life for most people who use it, but it does have a dark side. When the newest gadget comes out with the latest technology, people buy it. That is good for the economy, but this constant upgrading generates tons of electronic garbage called e-waste. Some of the e-waste is recycled, but frequently it ends up in developing countries, contaminating the environment and sickening the population. Because e-waste is a growing problem, tech companies must create less toxic products and individuals must dispose of their unwanted devises properly.
In the U.S. more than 3 billion electronic devices have been sold since 1980, and half of those devices have been thrown away (Withgott & Bennan, 2011, p. 633). The sale of electronic devices doubled from 1997 to 2009, largely “driven by a nine-fold increase in mobile device sales” (Statistics on the Management of Used and End-of-Life Electronics). Cell phones have become less expensive over time, which means more people can afford them. In addition, many cell phone service providers offer free phones with the purchase of a calling plan. Desktop computers and laptops have also gradually become more affordable, so today more than 75% of U.S. households have a computer (Office of Publications & Special Studies, 2010). That means more and more people are upgrading, exchanging, and disposing of electronics every year.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2.37 million short tons of e-waste was generated in 2009 and about 25% was recycled. 38% of discarded computers, 17% of discarded televisions, and 8% of discarded mobile devices were recycled; the rest was disposed of in landfills or incinerated (Statistics on the Management of Used and End-of-Life Electronics). Even though it sounds like an enormous figure, EPA estimates e-waste only represents 1 - 2% of total municipal waste. So why all the concern?
E-waste gets so much attention because electronics contain a myriad of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and nickel (Frequent Questions: General Information on E-Waste). In fact, e-waste is the “second-largest source of lead in U.S. landfills today, behind auto batteries” (Withgott & Bennan, 2011, p. 633). Those toxic substances can leach into ground water from landfills, or pollute the air when incinerated (What To Do About E-Waste).
As bad as that may be here in America, an overwhelming amount of e-waste is actually shipped overseas to developing countries like China. Consequently, people in poor, rural communities disassemble electronics without safety equipment to obtain the rare and valuable metals like gold contained within circuit boards and cell phones. They live with mountains of e-waste constantly all around them, polluting their air and water, and damaging their health. 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley followed one shipping container full of computer monitors from Colorado to Guiyu, Hong Kong. There he discovered e-waste has turned the town into a toxic wasteland where “pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage, and … seven out of ten kids have too much lead in their blood.” (CBS News, 2010).
Shipping e-waste from the U.S. to towns like Guiyu is illegal according to both U.S. law and Chinese law (CBS News, 2010). Unfortunately, that does not stop unscrupulous companies from collecting Americans’ unwanted electronics under the guise of responsible recycling and sending them overseas by the container-full (CBS News, 2010). This compounds the issue because people who try to be responsible and recycle their e-waste instead of throwing it away are duped into contributing to the problem.
Even though the problem of e-waste is immense and complicated, there are people and organizations working toward solutions. Federal, state, and municipal governments have established regulations and guidelines for disposal of e-waste, and monitoring programs for landfills (Electronics Waste). Beyond government, organizations like Natural Resources Defense Council offer information to individuals and businesses about the potential hazards of e-waste, as well as guidance for how to properly dispose of it (What To Do About E-Waste). In addition, watchdog group Basil Action Network founder, Jim Puckett, operates a program that certifies e-waste recyclers to help people with unwanted electronics choose an ethically responsible recycling company (CBS News, 2010).
The proportion of discarded electronic devices that are being reused and recycled instead of being thrown away is steadily increasing, but there is still more to do before the problem is solved. Tech companies can help by beginning their design process with the understanding that these devices have a short life-span, and will be eventually dissected for their valuable components after only a few years. Hopefully, operating under that assumption will enable tech companies to innovate and find ways to make electronics out of less harmful ingredients. If using less toxic components is not possible for today’s technology, manufacturers can at least design the products to be more easily and safely disassembled.
In addition, people can help solve the problem by getting informed and acting conscientiously. If electronics are still in good working order, giving them to someone who can use them or selling them on Craigslist is the first, best option. If those are not practical or possible, then people should recycle them through an e-Stewards Recycler who has been “independently verified to handle e-waste in the most globally responsible way – using safe technologies and careful protections for workers” (What To Do About E-Waste). The most important thing is for people and businesses to find out where their e-waste is going after they dispose of it. Raising awareness is the first step to making a positive change in e-waste for the future.
Solving the e-waste problem is a good idea for both people and the planet. In addition to the positive environmental impact, proper disposal of e-waste could create jobs. Of course, there is the potential for those added jobs here to be created at the cost of jobs for people in developing countries, which may worsen poverty. Job creation aside, there is huge opportunity for tech companies to take advantage of the marketing potential created by “going green” and producing products that have a neutral environmental impact.
Technology is a vital part of modern life and it is here to stay for both businesses and individuals. Unfortunately, there is also a growing amount of e-waste every year as new devices are released and people upgrade. Tech companies need to design their products under the assumption that they will become obsolete in a short amount of time, and build these devices out of less harmful material. Individuals need to take advantage of secondary markets to increase the number of devices that are reused. When electronics finally reach the end of their useful life, people must dispose of them through a responsible and certified electronics recycler. That will ensure that America’s e-waste does not end up polluting the environment in developing countries like China. Responsible disposal and recycling of e-waste is good for the plant and all of its peoples. As a wealthy and powerful nation, America has a moral responsibility to lead by example for the rest of the world.
CBS News. (2010, January 8). Following The Trail Of Toxic E-Waste. 60 Minutes. Retrieved November 30, 2012 from http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-4579229.html
Electronics Waste. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2012, from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality website: http://www.deq.state.or.us/lq/electronics.htm
Frequent Questions: General Information on E-Waste. (2012, November 14). Retrieved November 28, 2012, from US Environmental Protection Agency website: http://www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/materials/ecycling/faq.htm
Statistics on the Management of Used and End-of-Life Electronics. (2012, November 14). Retrieved November 29, 2012, from US Environmental Protection Agency website: http://www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/materials/ecycling/faq.htm
Office of Publications & Special Studies. (2010, May). Consumer Expenditures. Focus on Prices and Spending, 1(4), Retrieved November 29, 2012 from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website: http://www.bls.gov/opub/focus/volume1_number4/cex_1_4.htm
Withgott, J., & Bennan, S. (2011). Environment: the science behind the stories (4th ed.). New York, NY. Pearson Benjamin Cummings. ISBN-13: 9780321715340.
What To Do About E-Waste. (2011, August 22). Retrieved November 30, 2012, from Natural Resources Defense Council website: http://www.nrdc.org/living/stuff/what-do-about-e-waste.asp