Don’t Be Haste to E-Waste Electronic-waste (e-waste) has emerged as a critical global environmental health issue in both developed and developing nations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refers to e-waste as “electronic products that are discarded by consumers. ” More specifically, e-waste is a generic term that encompasses various forms of electrical and electronic equipment that may be old, might have reached end-of-life and most importantly cease to be of any value to their present owners.These electronics include computers, printers, television sets, mobile phones, video game consoles, and VCR and DVD players, among other products. As the demand for newer, more effective and efficient technology increases, the life span of electronic products is becoming shorter and shorter; thus, our consumer society today, which Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff describes as a society with a throwaway mindset, discards significant amounts of e-waste worldwide as older and out-of-date electronic items become obsolete.
Sound management is imperative to face the challenges that come about as a result of this new kind of waste; and while certain nations such as the United States and Japan have refocused their attention on recycling for the management of electronic waste, it is up to society at large—whether it be individual consumers, large corporations, or non-governmental organizations—to take action in reducing the amounts of e-waste produced. According to the EPA, e-waste is the fastest growing stream of municipal solid waste, growing at about 4% a year; however, its management remains a significant environment health concern.It is estimated that 20-50 million tons of e-waste are produced annually worldwide; the United States, Western Europe, China, Japan, and Australia are the major producers (Davis and Herat 2010, 707). Although it does not create visible heaps of trash like municipal waste, e-waste is very complex, non-biodegradable and toxic. Electronic and electrical appliances are made up of thousands of different parts that consist of hundreds of different substances—plastics, metals, glass as well as organic and inorganic compounds.Compounds such as brominates, flame retardants, metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium compounds found in these appliances are highly dangerous persistent organic pollutants that pose health and environment risks. These chemicals bio-accumulate as they move through the food-chain making the hazards more acute in the event of incorrect disposal and inappropriate recycling techniques.
Without the appropriate facilities to safeguard environmental and human health, the techniques used in recycling of e-waste are often primitive.These include removing electronic components from printed circuit boards by heating them over a grill using honeycombed coal blocks as fuel, chipping and melting plastics without proper ventilation, disposing unsalvageable materials in the fields and riverbanks, stripping metals in open-pit acid baths to recover gold and other materials, and so forth. All of these practices contribute to the release of toxic metals such as lead, as well as persistent organic pollutants and flame retardants, into the environment, which may affect human health either directly or indirectly.Moreover, the US only recycles 18% of e-waste collected, with the remaining 80% sent to the landfill and 2% for incineration (EPA 2008). About 50-80% of the e-waste collected for recycling in industrialized countries like the US end up in recycling centers—or landfills—in China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines because dealing with e-waste responsibly is expensive (UNEP 2005). As a result, these developing countries along with more are generating more and more e-waste in their own territories, so that countries like the US can avoid the costs of responsible recycling.Specialists make the claim that the products are slated for “resuse” to get around import restrictions (Leonard, 2008); however the purpose of recycling activities in these countries is to primarily recover gold, silver, copper, and other metals for profit (Huo 2007).
The environmental consequence is dire in these regions if the activities remain unchecked and out of control. Further the recycling processes of dismantling, burning, heating, and so forth expose workers and residents to dangerous mixtures of metals and pollutants.Ultimately, irreparable damage is done not only to the environment but also to innocent civilians during these processes when compared to the short-term monetary gains. The matters are worsened by the fact that public at large remains unaware of the toxic footprints they generate. Annie Leonard describes in her movie, The Story of Stuff, that products in our consumer culture are “designed for the dump. ” That is, whether it’s through advertisements or celebrity endorsements, one is not “trendy” or up-to-date without the latest and the greatest gadget.People abandon their perfectly functional electronic products and purchase a newer upgrade, which may only have one or two innovations with impunity and without hesitation.
For example, it has only been one year since Apple has come out with its newest generation of its iPad (it was available for purchase on March 11, 2011); however, Apple within one year has come out with its third generation of its product: the iPad 3. Personally, I myself have been guilty of such a mindset, which is why I find this particular issue to be so significant in our society today. Engraved in our minds is the model of consumer culture—buy, buy, buy.Rarely do people ever think of the consequences that occur as a result of their replacement of older products with newer ones. As a matter of fact, throughout the course of my own life, I have owned a total of eleven phones. From phones breaking, to wanting newer models, I, like most people in the US, did not think twice about the consequences that result from such carelessness. In fact, the average cell phone can contain up to or more than forty elements from the periodic table (UNEP 2009), which when disposed of cause harm to the environment.
Overall, current consumption patterns are unsustainable and inequitable.Change is needed to fix this disaster. Therefore, in order to reduce the amount of e-waste in present day, it is up to individual consumers to begin to realize that their actions have consequences to them. However it is not just up to consumers to be responsible, but it is also up to producers to provide some extended responsibility. That is, people seldom have any incentive to do good in that environmentally conscious owners who want to do the right thing in disposing of their outdate electronics usually must reach into their own pockets to make sure that these machines either find new homes or are recycled properly.Therefore, companies should engage in what Leonard calls, “Producer Takeback,” in which a product and waste management system is created to take responsibility for the safe management of their products when they are no longer useful or discarded. Since the companies have made the product, it should be their responsibility to deal with it.
Also another feasible device to improve environmental impacts due to e-waste would be the implementation of a front-end fee; that is, a set amount of money that consumers would have to pay as a part of the cost of a new product (more or less like an environmental tax).In turn, the money collected from the fee would be placed in a fund of sorts that would help to finance the safe recycling and disposal of electronic products. The money could also go into research conducted by experts—environmental scientists, engineers, and other professionals—to minimize the exposure of toxic chemicals in the manufacturing of electronic devices, which would increase preventative measures. Ultimately, as the volume of electronic waste continues to grow, answers on what to do about it grow increasingly important.Some state and local governments are demonstrating leadership on the issue. For example, the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance (OEA) was able to get Sony Electronics, Panasonic, the Waste Management-Asset Recovery Group, and the American Plastics Council to provide statewide recycling for electronics, while also measuring the marketability of the products collected, which shows that the electronics industry is showing its willingness to be a part of the process. Also California, along with Massachusetts, has taken the lead in banning cathode ray tubes (CRTs) from landfills.
Moreover, recent legislation both in the US and abroad—particularly Europe and Japan—has begun to shift towards waste management, namely e-waste, because the deteriorating effect it has on the environment and the decreasing capacity of landfills. However, our nation and other nations as well, have a long way to go. Although the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act prohibits companies from shipping their old computer monitors to landfills, there is nothing to stop the vast majority of individuals and many small businesses from simply putting their outdated electronics out with the rest of their trash.Additionally, in the US, it is still considered legal under the law to export most e-waste to developing nations. Therefore, in order to remedy this current dilemma we face today, more stringent and effective regulations are necessary in regards to e-waste management and environmental issues. Both developed and developing nations share a responsibility in the regulation of electronic manufacturing and the movement of those goods across borders.It is up to individual consumers, producing corporations, and local and national governments, to come up with a solution to limit the excess waste produced annually by electronics.
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