SAGE (Sound Advice for a Green Earth) is a project by advanced students in Earth Systems and other programs to answer sustainability questions. Submit questions at stanfordmag.org.
Q: How is the environment affected when people throw away electronics that are supposed to be recycled?
The Essential Answer
Ah, the holidays: a time when loved ones gather to enjoy one another’s presence and, often, presents. For some lucky people, this gift-giving season brings the excitement of receiving the latest electronic gadget, phone or laptop. But an influx of shiny new devices means an outflow of old devices — and that outflow is growing every year. A United Nations report projects that globally we will produce more than 50 million metric tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, in 2018. That’s equivalent to 245,000 Statues of Liberty.
Disposing of all this e-waste isn’t as simple as putting an old device into a regular garbage can or recycling bin. Electronics contain materials hazardous to both human and environmental health; for example, anything with a circuit board contains mercury and lead, and anything with a rechargeable battery contains cadmium. When these substances come into contact with humans or animals, they can cause issues ranging from developmental and behavioral problems to very serious DNA damage.
Although it is possible to safely neutralize or repurpose these dangerous substances through an e-waste recycling process, the cost associated with it has prompted many people to instead kick their broken devices to the (literal) curb. “A lot of people would say ‘I’m not paying,’” says Russ Caswell, a 16-year veteran at e-Recycling of California and the official e-recycler for Stanford University. “Now you have basically hazardous waste on the side of the road.”
While we lack the data necessary to grasp the full impact of this new-age roadkill, what we do know doesn’t bode well. Lead from e-waste amounts to 2.2 million tons annually — about the same weight as six Empire State Buildings — threatening human health if it makes its way into our soil or groundwater. Simultaneously, e-waste management emits tons of chlorofluorocarbons each year, weakening the planet’s protective ozone shield and leaving us vulnerable to harmful UV rays and the skin cancer they can cause.
How can you, as a consumer, curtail these negative effects? Minimize the amount of e-waste you produce, and dispose of it responsibly. Although only you can control your electronics purchases, several companies can help with disposal. Take-back programs allow you to give your old electronics to retailers or local governments for safe processing. Visit electronicstakeback.com for a list of take-back programs in the United States. We hope you will join us in resolving to take care of your e-waste responsibly to make it a happy new year for the planet, too.
While the recycling of electronics in California has greatly improved over the past few years, this success is not reflected everywhere. In different parts of the world, e-waste is met with varying management strategies and environmental effects. Let’s look a bit closer into the most common scenarios: take-back systems, mixed-waste systems, private collection and informal collection.
Take-back systems allow governments and third parties to take the onus of responsible electronic waste management off the consumer. In these systems — which usually exist in developed countries and under official regulations — municipalities, retailers or commercial pickup services collect the e-waste. They then transport it to state-of-the-art recycling facilities. There, toxic materials are safely removed; materials such as plastic, glass and metal are recycled; and residuals are taken to the landfill.
In the United States, take-back systems account for only a fraction of e-waste management. Some companies, including Staples and Apple, have programs in place to encourage customers to responsibly dispose of their electronics. Take-back systems result in minimal environmental degradation due to the responsible handling of toxic substances and reuse of recyclable materials.
In mixed-waste systems, e-waste is not separated from other types of garbage in household or management facilities. This means that electronics ultimately end up in a landfill or a trash incinerator, and the opportunity is lost to salvage the precious metals and recyclable materials (such as gold, silver, copper and plastic) typically present in these devices. Not only does mixed-waste disposal result in the loss of profitable resources, but it also has the most conspicuous effects on health and the environment. E-waste that is incinerated or sent to the landfill releases lead, mercury, arsenic and other hazardous elements into the air, water and soil. Lead poisoning can cause serious developmental problems in children, while mercury exposure is linked to brain and kidney damage. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are also released during the breakdown and irresponsible incineration of electronics. CFCs deplete the atmosphere’s ozone layer, which protects the planet by absorbing much of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation. E-waste, therefore, has a direct relationship with global environmental problems, a relationship that is exacerbated in mixed-waste systems.
In private collection, private companies collect and dispose of e-waste from homes and institutions. The main difference between this scenario and take-back systems is regulation; private companies are not overseen by any authority, nor are their actions officially documented. This makes private disposal of e-waste difficult to track. In some cases, e-waste is given to specialized facilities, while other times it is exported to outside countries.
When e-waste is privately shipped to other countries, its disposal is often done in an unethical and illegal manner. Each year, millions of phones, monitors and televisions are traded to several different countries; most go to China, Ghana or India. E-waste management introduces a profitable yet risky business in these target countries, where the infrastructure necessary to safely process hazardous electronic materials often does not exist. Disturbingly, this means that the people who directly process our old iPhones and laptops are often unknowingly at a high risk for exposure to dangerous chemicals — and some of these workers are children. In Guiyu, China, workers without safety equipment burn materials or rinse electronics with corrosive hydrochloric acid in order to make a profit from the valuable copper and steel inside. Both methods release unregulated heavy metals and CFCs into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the United States directly contributes to these ethical and environmental problems by engaging in practices of illegal exportation.
Informal collection occurs mostly in developing countries, where people self-employ by collecting e-waste door-to-door and processing it themselves. The fate of e-waste in informal collection usually follows one of three paths: Peddlers manually disassemble electronics they collect and then sell parts to recyclers; collectors sell unwanted products to refurbishers; or, collectors burn unusable electronics or treat them with acid in a manner similar to that in the private collection scenario. This “backyard recycling” is common in places like Accra, Ghana, where vendors will sell e-waste on the side of the road or try to extract copper wire by burning what they find. Like other types of unregulated e-waste management, informal collection practices pose a suite of environmental and health risks.
Regardless of the method of disposal , you can curtail the negative impact of e-waste by buying fewer devices and by giving your used electronics a smart and ethical end-life. Handling electronic waste is a continual challenge, but we can all take small steps to lighten the load.
Claire Miles, ’17, plans to complete her MS in Earth Systems in 2018.