The computer on your desk, the phone in your pocket, even your company’s expensive new espresso machine—there is future e-waste everywhere you look. Over the past few decades, technology has grown to be a huge part of everyday life. Starting the moment we wake up, we use technology for almost everything. Electronics are in our homes, and they’re an especially vital part of how you run your business. You couldn’t operate without specific devices, and most of that equipment comes with either batteries or an electric plug. They help you get the job done, but like everything else, they have a life expectancy. When those devices are replaced, they turn into e-waste.
What is E-Waste?
E-waste, or electronic waste, refers to electronic devices that have reached the end of their useful lives. Your office’s old copier, the broken toaster from the lunch room, and every drained battery taken out of an old laptop is considered e-waste. Every business, no matter the industry, produces e-waste on some scale. It’s an aftereffect of doing business in the 21st century.
It isn’t out of the ordinary to collect a certain amount of e-waste, but it’s important to realize that while an old VHS player or a broken circuit board can seem harmless, the Environmental Protection Agency considers e-waste to be a type of hazardous waste. Besides the risk of injury due to sharp metal edges, e-waste has the potential to expose handlers to dangerous chemicals, dust, and vapor. Lead, mercury, beryllium, cadmium, and flame-retardant compounds are often found in electronic devices.
For example, solder releases harmful lead dust when disturbed. Thermostats, batteries, switches, and fluorescent tubes used in lighting also contain mercury vapor. A study on mercury toxicity and treatment shows that when exposed, mercury vapor can damage the digestive system, immune system, and lungs. In some cases, it’s fatal. There are hazardous materials hidden in devices you use everyday. With normal use, there’s no danger. But as those devices reach the end of their lifespans and are dissembled or broken, they pose a risk to human health and the environment.
The E-Waste Issue Oversees
The responsible way to dispose of e-waste is to send it to a permitted e-waste recycling facility. These facilities are charged with proper storage, disassembly, and recycling of all electronic devices. They’re located all over the world, but in recent years, reports show that an alarming amount of e-waste is being shipped to countries that don’t have the infrastructure to handle it. A case study promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 2016, only about 20 percent of global e-waste was being recycled. Not only is it not being recycled, it’s not being handled with the proper precautions.
According to estimates released by China’s state media, 2016 saw around 70 percent of the world’s e-waste enter China. With 500 million tons of e-waste generated around the globe, that is a huge undertaking for any country. Overwhelmed by the amount of waste entering its borders, China recently imposed a ban on 24 types of oversees trash, including e-waste. The country told the World Trade Organization that it was no longer interested in being the word’s dumping ground, despite the potential to profit from “mining” valuable materials from discarded electronics.
Not everyone in China, however, is on board. The country now faces illegal imports from unlicensed facilities that have no interest in responsible storage or recycling. They salvage valuable parts of the waste and either send what remains further along the illegal e-waste chain or let it collect in warehouses. It’s a problem for China, and it’s also predicted there will be effects on the environment and global recycling industry. At the same time, now that China is no longer legally accepting e-waste, there are millions of tons of waste piling up. It’s being rerouted to other countries and causing issues in the under-developed areas where it eventually lands.
One of those dumping grounds is India. As the second-most populated country in the world, India battles socio-economic issues such as overcrowding and waste management. E-waste buyers inviting more hazardous waste into the country’s borders exacerbates these problems. They’re now faced with the insurmountable task of managing massive amounts of e-waste that come into the country every day.
Importing e-waste into India is legal, but many companies that buy the waste don’t have the capacity to properly handle it. A report prepared by the Union Environment Ministry says India has 178 registered e-waste recyclers that process more than 2 million tons of materials annually. Most of that waste, however, is bought by “recyclers” that don’t actually recycle.
The main difficulty is that they can’t afford the specialized equipment needed for e-waste recycling. And without that equipment, potentially hazardous material is stored wherever there’s room. Many of these companies do not have disposal yards for the waste, and they disassemble everything by hand. They slowly process and take apart things like old HVAC systems, washing machines, and gaming consoles. When they’re done mining the more valuable parts, the rest of the waste (including hazardous material) is either passed on to the next buyer or kept in storage. There are no precautions to protect people or the environment from hazardous materials, and the problem is expected to get worse as the global population produces more e-waste every year.
Safe Handling of E-Waste
The problems seen in China and India seem far away, but the safe handling of e-waste is a global issue. Businesses are responsible for safely storing their electronic waste until it can be properly recycled. It’s important to minimize the risk of chemical exposure by keeping devices as intact as possible. Broken or damaged pieces can leak or release dust and vapors. Batteries should also be stored in plastic containers to prevent corrosion.
E-waste can lead to physical injuries, illness, and environmental contamination. And while you can’t completely stop your company from needing new computers, batteries, or printers, there are ways to minimize the global effects of electronic waste. Every step you take to responsibly store and dispose of your company’s e-waste contributes to the world’s overall ability to manage the millions of tons generated around the world.