Goal Green

Electro-Pollution: A Story of Horror and Hope
July 24, 2007, 10:46 pm
Filed under: E-Waste, Electronics, Pollution, Toxic Waste

One of the most underestimated forms of human pollution and carbon emissions on our planet comes from our waste of electronics. As eager as we are to buy a new iPhone, HDTV, or tablet PC, we often overlook the impacts of these purchases. As we advance technologically, we seem to fall behind environmentally. As electronics waste more electricity, they are even worse off if (and when) we throw them away. Made up of a laundry list of toxic materials, high-tech devices are a huge problem in the developing world. Luckily, it is within our reach to reform our production, consumption, and “recycling” practices within the decade.

Newer TVs use more electricity and are getting more popular. By 2009, the year that half of all of new U.S. TV sales are expected to be big screened HDTVs, it is expected that our televisions will use about 70 billion kilowatt-hours per year. This is about a 50% growth from last year’s averages. The electricity bill doesn’t stop there; we are buying more DVD players, laptops, desktops, game systems and smart phones as well. Think about your first cell phone. It probably had very few features, except that essential one that all phones do—it could make phone calls. Its battery, albeit weak, could probably last for a few days on end without a trip to the wall socket. Smart phones, on the other hand, tend to drain a lot of energy; requiring more powerful batteries and more charging.

The other, perhaps more serious problem with electronics is that they are on the far end of the biodegradability spectrum. In fact, they not only contain plastic and other polymers that are harmful to us and our ecosystem, they also contain tons of toxic chemicals. The ingredients of computer monitors, televisions, and laptop displays contain the likes of the neurotoxin lead, copper, beryllium, barium, zinc, chromium, silver, nickel, polyvinyl chloride (the plastic around wiring that generates dioxins and furans), and brominated flame retardants (documented to disrupt thyroid hormone function and act as neurotoxins in animals). Some of the flame retardants are used with the plastics in the casing of cellular phones and have been found in the breast milk of women in the U.S., not to mention marine mammals.

How do these chemicals get into our environment and, more so, our bodies? It all has to do with the life-cycle of these products. Typically, after natural resources and polymers are utilized to make very small chips and boards, they are encased and then marketed to the general public. After the purchase and use of these products, a time period which is also dwindling given the pace of innovation in this field, the consumer often ends up throwing these devices out with the trash. For instance, only about 10% of personal computers are ever recycled.

The overwhelming bulk of our e-waste goes straight into landfills, where about 20 – 50% of the toxic materials will begin to degrade in our soilthat is the good part. Some 50 – 80% will end up being shipped to decrepit villages in China. Here labor is cheap and you can find men and women heating toxic circuit boards over a fire in order to pluck out the chips. This process is repeated for all of the “valuable” materials. For the rest of the waste, a worker administers acid and then lets the lethal mixture flow into the river. It is said that these types of villages produce a toxic odor that can be felt miles away, while the waste ends up in our ecosystems, in our food supply.

In reaction to this horror, certain U.S. states have passed legislation in recent years which bans the disposal of certain chemicals. States like California, Iowa, and Massachusetts have initiated recycling programs of varying degrees. Big buyers are contributing too, with government, schools, and corporations all sending their machines back to manufacturers. Since there is no national initiative, or ban on all the harmful materials, much of the pollution is in full swing. The problem that arises is that most recycling programs are funded by taxpayers and are thus limited monetarily in their ability to extract materials.

Fortunately, the problem of these high costs has already been solved for us. The European Union has ruled to require manufacturers to take back the products that they sell in order to recycle them. The hefty costs of recycling are pinned on the manufacturer in a concept known as Extended Producer Responsibility. This system is financed by fees that are factored into the product’s cost. Not only does this method give incentives for consumers to recycle their e-waste (since they have already paid for it), but it also gives electronics manufacturers incentives to design their products with less hazardous waste. The less waste, the lower their recycling bill, the more profit they get to keep.

Luckily for Americans that have grown accustomed to seeing absolutely no action from their federal government on the environmental front, Europe’s policies will affect the whole world. Since most large electronics producers sell their products globally, their standards for Europe will end up in America as well.

What we can do for now, however, is to stay aware of the issue through informative sources such as the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Among all else, we should send our electronics back to the manufacturer once we are done with them, thank Europe, and urge our own government to pass legislation that is universally beneficial.

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