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Why proper E-Waste disposal is important [Ultimate Guide]

By 2021 we will have 52.2 million metric tons of electronic waste

E-waste has huge environmental and health effects. Here’s a detailed guide on why proper E-Waste disposal is important for businesses and individuals.

Technology has grown exponentially over the past few years. Before, a computer would be a luxury to have in the average household. Now, there are over 3.8 billion smartphone users in the world. 

While the advancements of technology have largely been a boon for the world, you can’t argue that they’ve also opened up a can of worms for people. For example, personal data and privacy are becoming harder to protect on the web with apps harvesting your information and selling them to third parties. 

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is another problem caused by the rapidly changing landscape of technology. Every year, new smartphones, computers, and devices are released and sold, resulting in tons of electronic devices being thrown away or left unused.

When people buy new gadgets every year, their old devices do not magically disintegrate into nothingness. Instead, all these pile up and generate electronic waste. In 2016, the world generated 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste, according to Global E-waste Monitor. By 2021, this will have grown to 52.2 million metric tons.

The growing number of e-waste can have severe ramifications on the environment and human health.

Why proper E-Waste disposal is important [Ultimate Guide]
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Photo by Curtis Palmer on Flickr

Environmental Impact of E-waste

Electronic devices contain a variety of heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury, lithium, and lead. When electronic devices collect in landfills over time, these toxic chemicals will eventually leak into the soil. What’s not filtered by soil will seep into groundwater. E-waste that’s exposed to heat will also release harmful gases to the atmosphere. 

Handling the growing e-waste problem also has a huge impact on the environment. Much of the e-waste from the US and other countries are sent to China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines for disposal. In many cases, backyard disposal centers handle these wastes by burning, dismantling, or burning them without proper protective gear. This releases emissions that are harmful not only to the environment but also to the health of those who are exposed.

Negative Effects of E-waste on Human Health

Appliances and devices in your home, like your television, refrigerator, tablet, computer, and phone, all contain thousands of chemicals. Some of which are more harmful than others. Heavy metals, for example, are toxic and exposure to them can lead to adverse health effects. 

Why proper E-Waste disposal is important [Ultimate Guide]
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Source: US National Library of Medicine
Lead, which is used in the cathode-ray tubes in computers and televisions, can cause anemia and kidney and brain damage. Babies exposed to lead in their mother’s belly can suffer from nervous system damage.

The LCD (liquid crystal display) screens in your smartphones, tablets, and computers use mercury. When turned to vapor, mercury can severely damage the nervous, digestive, and immune systems.

Another heavy metal, cadmium is used in rechargeable batteries in computer batteries and electronic contacts. Exposure to high levels of cadmium in a short amount of time can cause flu-like symptoms. Long-term, low-dosage exposure can lead to bone, kidney, and lung disease.

Other than heavy metals, flame retardants, which are chemicals used to prevent or slow down fire, are also present in many electronic devices. Some of the potential health effects of flame retardants include the following:

  • Endocrine and thyroid disruption,
  • Immune system damage
  • Reproductive toxicity
  • Cancer
  • Neurological function damage
  • Disruptions to fetal growth and development

Proper handling and disposal of e-waste can help mitigate its environmental and human impact. That said, as electronic users, what steps should you take to ensure your devices are properly disposed of?

Why proper E-Waste disposal is important [Ultimate Guide]
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Photo by Jake Brown on Flickr

What can you do to promote E-Waste disposal?

Every gadget owner has the responsibility to see to it that their devices are properly disposed of after these electronics have become obsolete. However, not everyone knows what they should do to ensure this. If you have old electronics that you want to get rid of, here’s what you should know about the proper disposal of e-waste.

  • Know your electronic devices. Many devices contain toxic metals and chemicals, so they need to be disposed of in specific ways. You can check the manufacturer’s manual for details on proper disposal. Some devices can also be recycled. Learn which of your devices you need to dispose of directly and which should be sent for recycling.

Here are a few examples of recyclable and nonrecyclable electronics products listed by the state of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation:

Recyclable Electronic ProductsNonrecyclable Electronic Products
Cathode-ray tubes

Computers (desktops, laptops, and tablets)

Document scanners

Digital converter boxes

Digital video recorders (DVRs)

Digital video disk players (DVD players)

E-book readers

Electronic keyboards

Electronic mice

Facsimile machines

Printers

Television sets

Calculators

Cameras and video cameras

Digital picture frames

Flat-panel displays

Household appliances

Monitoring systems

Motor vehicles or their parts

Portable wand scanners

Smart speakers

Storage-only external drives

Telephones

Temperature-monitoring devices

If your obsolete devices are not on this list, your best course of action is the next tip.

  • Check state and national laws and e-waste recycling programs.Your local or national authorities have likely set guidelines on the proper disposal of potentially hazardous waste like e-waste. Consult your state laws or websites to find details about this. 

In California, for example, consumers pay a fee that goes to the state’s recycling program or fund when they purchase electronic devices. Twenty-five US states and the District of Columbia also have laws that extend producers’ or manufacturers’ e-waste responsibility.

Check if your local government may have e-waste recycling programs that you can take advantage of. If not, try the next tip.

  • Look for EPA-certified electronic recyclers. Certified electronic recyclers can handle, dispose, or recycle your e-waste for a fee or for free. To get a certification, they typically undergo accreditation from groups, like Responsible Recycling and e-Stewards.org.
  • Think twice before buying a new device. Ask yourself if you really need that upgrade before buying the latest smartphone or device. Every year, manufacturers, like Samsung or Apple, release new mobile phones with very few significant features but sound impressive enough to convince consumers to buy them.

Take a long, long time to assess whether you need a new phone or device. Make a list of pros and cons. Think of other better things you can spend your money (like saving up for the future or a vacation). Read this article, and carefully consider whether you need that latest Android or Apple device.

Why proper E-Waste disposal is important [Ultimate Guide]
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Photo by Patrickewastenz on Wikipedia

The Takeaway

As a consumer, you have the responsibility to be thoughtful about the products and services you buy. Businesses will always encourage you to purchase more because that’s what they do. To help mitigate the growing e-waste problem, follow proper disposal of electronic devices, and don’t needlessly buy gadgets and electronics. Think twice, thrice, or four times before buying that new gadget.

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Alex Sawyer

Alex Sawyer is a graduate student studying urban environmental policy and planning, a certificate program in Lehigh University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science and business in the same university. He was first introduced to electronic waste management in one of his classes, and the topic has since caught his interest. Sawyer started writing about the subject to raise awareness on the growing electronic-waste problem around the world.

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