This article first appeared on Unsustainable Magazine on 14 December 2019
Who isn’t attracted to the latest mobile device or laptop? If we could afford it, we would be changing our digital gadgets every time a new one pops up in the market. But why does throwing away your computer bring so much harm to the environment?
The world has produced at least 50 million tons of e-waste in 2018 alone i
Your computer or any digital or electronic device is part of E-waste, also known as Electronic Waste, which consists of damaged or outdated electronic devices, products, materials and spare parts. As we all know, makers of digital devices strive to improve and update their creations rapidly so these products can be launched earlier in order to gain and retain an even bigger share of the consumer market.
As gadgets get more sophisticated, older inventions are discarded for newer and more appealing ones. Remember when people would not hesitate to queue overnight so that they could be the first to possess the latest iPhone? No doubt, there is a certain fascination with being “the first” to own the latest gadget, not to mention, the bragging rights that come with it.
However, because of our desire to acquire the “spanking new” digital device, we would need to get rid of our older and less refined gadgets. Some people would sell their old devices to second-hand dealers or donate them to needy families but many would prefer to just dump them into the trash. This is why E-waste is increasing every year.
This could also be due to the fact that manufacturers have made the devices last for a shorter period of time as they want consumers to come back and buy more of their products regularly. This, of course, increases their profits but it also contributes to more gadgets being thrown into landfills.
Usually, people would not consider repairing their computers or mobile devices if they were defective. They would just go out and buy a new one. Furthermore, they may not think it is worth the money or time required to get them repaired. Can you imagine being unable to use your computer as it is at the repair shop? And depending on circumstances, you may have to wait from a few days to a week just to get it fixed.
If you are thinking about recycling it, this may not sit well with some people as they fear that their personal data may be retrieved by the new owners, in spite of having done a “factory reset” to wipe out all existing information. A digital gadget, especially a mobile phone, is a very personal item and people would rather throw it away than pass it on to others to use.
E-waste contains toxic chemical elements like lithium, mercury, lead, etc. which can leak into the environment ii
As such, the disposal process of E-waste should not mean sending it to landfills. And this is why there are businesses which specialize in the safe removal and recycling of E-waste.
In an article by V. Ranganathan entitled “Health hazards caused by unorganised e-waste disposal”, it was stated that E-waste has the following harmful effects on humans: iii
- Reproductive issues
- Developmental problems
- Damage to the immune system
- Interference with regulatory hormones
- Damage to the nervous system
- Kidney damage
- Hampers brain development in children
- May lead to lung cancer
- Chronic beryllium disease
- Skin ailments
- Cadmium accumulations on liver and kidney
- Asthmatic bronchitis
- DNA damage
- Muscle weakness
- Endocrine system disruption
- In addition, “researchers have now linked e-waste to adverse effects on human health, such as inflammation and oxidative stress – precursors to cardiovascular disease, DNA damage and possibly cancer” and “due to the crude recycling process, many pollutants, such as persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals, are released from e-waste, which can easily accumulate in the human body through the inhalation of contaminated air.” iv
E-waste is shipped to third-world countries
This usually happens when “many of these out-of-date electrical and electronic devices still have commercial value because they still work or contain expensive materials that can be recycled.” v
“Although it is legal to export discarded goods to poor countries if they can be reused or refurbished, much is being sent to Africa or Asia under false pretences” and “a substantial proportion of e-waste exports go to countries outside Europe, including West African countries. Treatment in these countries usually occurs in the informal sector, causing significant environmental pollution and health risks for local populations.” vi
This practice has only made third-world countries a popular dumping ground for old digital gadgets. And by throwing such devices indiscriminately, it has also created a shortage for rare-earth minerals which are required in the manufacture of such appliances.
Last word: Recycling old digital products is a practice not many people are willing to commit to. Hopefully, more people could be persuaded to recycle as a means to saving the Earth.
i Why E-Waste is so Dangerous and How the ‘Right to Repair’ Will Save the Environment by Citizen Truth, 4 November 2018
ii Why E-Waste is so Dangerous and How the ‘Right to Repair’ Will Save the Environment by Citizen Truth, 4 November 2018
iii Health hazards caused by unorganised e-waste disposal by V. Ranganathan for yourstory.com, 28 June 2018
iv ‘E-waste pollution’ threat to human health by IOP Institute of Physics, 31 May 2011
v E-waste and the infrastructures of digitalization by Diggit Magazine (undated)
vi Toxic E-Waste Dumped in Poor Nations, Says United Nations by John Vidal for The Guardian and United Nations University, 16 December 2013