electronic waste: a growing concern
Old and obsolete electronics, or “e-waste”, is the fastest growing portion of our waste stream and contains an array of toxic materials. In the US, we scrap about 400 million units per year of consumer electronics; worldwide, about 4,000 tons of e-waste is discarded every hour.
Adding to this problem, TV stations have made the switch from analog to digital signals. This switch, along with the falling price of flat-screen TVs and the growing popularity of HDTV, is inspiring many consumers to buy new digital television sets – potentially sending millions of older models to landfills unless recycling options are in place.
|Currently, unsafe disposal methods endanger public health and the environment
82.5% of U.S. e-waste is currently sent to landfills or incinerators, and the remaining 17.5% is documented as recycled. However, much of the e-waste documented as recycled is not handled in a responsible, environmentally sound manner, and an estimated 50-80% of it is actually exported to developing nations. These irresponsible e-waste disposal and recycling practices are creating a wide range of negative repercussions for people at home and abroad.
In the U.S., consumer electronics already make up an estimated 40% of the lead and 70% of heavy metals in landfills.
In addition, burning e-waste in U.S. incinerators releases dioxin, a human carcinogen, and other toxic materials into the air we breathe. The leftover toxic ash ends up in landfills, and potentially our water supply.
Toxic high-tech trash
A typical television or computer monitor contains at least 4 pounds of lead, one out of four metals that have the most damaging effects on human health. Flat panel LCD displays contain mercury, known to cause many health problems such as disruption of the nervous system, damage to brain functions, DNA and chromosomal damage, birth defects and miscarriages. Electronics also contain brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which in animal studies have nervous system, reproductive, developmental, and endocrine effects, as well as cause cancer. Similar in structure to now-banned PCBs, these toxic flame retardants are being detected – at the highest levels in the world – in mother’s milk samples from Texas women.
Summary of several toxic materials in electronics
SOURCE: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Found in chip resistors, infrared detectors, and semiconductors. Cadmium can accumulate in, and negatively impact, the kidneys. Cadmium is persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. The principal exposure pathway is through respiration and through food.
Found in glass panels in computer monitors and lead soldering of printed circuit boards. Lead can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, and kidneys in humans. Lead has also been shown to have negative effects on the development of children's brains. Lead can accumulate in the environment and have a detrimental effect on plants, animals, and humans. Consumer electronics may be responsible for 40% of the lead found in landfills. The principal pathway of concern is lead leaching from landfills and contaminating drinking water supplies.
Found in thermostats, position sensors, relays and switches (e.g., on printed circuit boards), discharge lamps, and batteries. It is also used in medical equipment, data transmission, telecommunications, and mobile phones. When mercury makes its way into waterways, it is transformed into methylated mercury in the sediments. Methylated mercury can cause brain damage.
Hexavalent Chromium or Chromium VI
Used to protect against corrosion of untreated and galvanized steel plates. Chromium VI can damage DNA and has been linked to asthmatic bronchitis. The major pathways are through landfill leachate or fly ash generated when materials containing chromium VI are incinerated.
Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs)
Found on printed circuit boards, components such as plastic covers, and cables, as well as in plastic covers of televisions. Although less is known about BFRs than some other contaminants of concern, research has shown that one of these flame retardants, polybrominated diphenylethers (PDBE) might act as an endocrine disrupter. Flame retardant polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) may increase cancer risk to the digestive and lymph systems. Once released into the environment through landfill leaching and incineration, they are concentrated in the food chain.
Because manufacturers use many different types of plastic in electronic equipment, it is very challenging to recycle. These plastics often include contaminants such as metal screws and inserts, coatings and paints, foams, and labels. Currently, plastics from electronic equipment are both difficult and costly to sort for single resin markets, and there are limited markets for the mixed plastics stream. Also, plastics can be treated with brominated flame retardants, making them harder to recycle and possibly dangerous to those exposed to them.
Learn more about prison labor recycling and exporting toxic waste to developing nations.
Photo: National Geographic