America’s e-Waste Problem

Electronic waste accounts for only 2-3% of the total waste stream in America. That doesn’t seem so bad? Not until you consider that the lead, chromium, cadmium, and other materials present in this aging waste account for more than 70% of all the hazardous waste in America’s landfills.

That raises some important questions:

  • Why does America have such a massive problem with e-waste and how does it impact us at a health and environmental level.
  • Why is the Basel convention, created by the United Nations, so important that almost 190 countries and states agreed to abide by it (Haiti and the USA signed the agreement but have not ratified it).
  • What do we need to do if we really want to make an impression in the problem of electronic waste.

Why Does America Have An e-Waste Problem?

The EPA confirms that e-waste is America’s fastest-growing municipal waste stream, and it’s not surprising when you consider how indispensable modern technology has become to our everyday lives. Not only this, but there’s increasing peer pressure to keep up-to-date with the latest trends, meaning that people are replacing their personal devices at a faster rate than ever before.

And these aren’t the only problems America faces when it comes to rapidly growing amounts of toxic e-waste.

The Laws Around e-Waste Recycling Are Outdated or Nonexistent

Only 50% of the states in America have legislation to address e-waste recycling. The other 25 states have no structure for monitoring or reporting procedures around electronic waste. And there’s no federal law that explicitly addresses how we should deal with recycling our e-waste.

In 30 states, it is entirely legal to throw away cell phones or dump a flatscreen TV, so gauging the e-waste recycling level is nearly impossible.

The USA Underperforms When It Comes To Recycling

It’s not just e-waste recycling that’s a problem; the USA doesn’t fare particularly well on any type of recycling. According to a 2017 report by Eunomia, America finished bottom in the top 25 recycling countries.

The average European country recycles around 30% of its plastic waste and Germany recycles more than any other country in the world, followed by Austria, South Korea, and Wales, all recycling more than 50% of their municipal waste. The USA manages to recycle 32%.

With a lack of legislation around e-waste recycling, the current system relies on individuals to do the right thing and dispose of end-of-life devices responsibly. But this can be challenging, especially when people are undereducated in the best practices.

People may be trying to recycle their unwanted items but failing to see the process through. Issues such as contamination are a huge problem and one of the main reasons why China ceased to accept recycled material from the USA.

Why Is e-Waste A Problem?

The problem with improper disposal of electronic goods is that if they end up in landfills, they release toxic chemicals which impact the soil, water, and air around them. Not only does this cause significant harm to the land, but it can affect the health of humans too.

If e-waste is informally disposed of, it releases dioxins (dust particles or toxins) into the surrounding air, which causes pollution and can cause damage to our respiratory systems.

Sometimes, these waste products are burned to retrieve valuable metals such as copper, but this process also releases several fine particles which are harmful to humans and animals.

Alternatively, when these materials are buried, dangerous chemicals leach into the surrounding soils. And over time, these processes cause the land, air, and water around dumping grounds to become seriously polluted.

Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, lithium, and barium can leak through the earth into groundwater, where they will eventually progress to contaminate rivers and lakes. When these materials are allowed to build up, they cause numerous health and environmental problems.

Developing Countries Do Not Have The Means To Properly Recycle e-Waste

Responsible recycling practices are expensive and time-consuming, so many developed countries have opted for a more straightforward solution—they ship tons of exports of e-waste to developing countries. This works because these countries have much lower quality control, lack environmental legislation, and do not have the proper infrastructure in place to deal with this waste stream.

In 2015, a United Nations Environment Program report stated that the exports of used electronics illegally traded or dumped in developing nations are anywhere between 60% and 90%. This puts developing countries at increased risk of e-waste contamination.

How Do We Address America’s e-Waste Problem?

The e-waste problem extends far beyond the reaches of the USA. The UN estimated that every person on the planet would produce an average of 7.6kg of e-waste in 2021, and only 17.4% of this material would be appropriately treated and recycled. This means that millions of tons of e-waste are improperly discarded every year.

To address this increasing problem, the world will need to adopt a new approach to tackling discarded electronics and increasing our environmental protection.

The United Nations created the Basel Convention in an attempt to ban the trading of hazardous waste between developed and developing nations (the USA is not a party to the BAN amendment), but this policy has done little to curb the rate of informal recycling. Instead, responsibility falls back on the manufacturers, designers, investors, traders, consumers, and policy-makers to each play their roles in tackling this issue.

The Future

To make any significant impact, we need to “dematerialize” the electronics industry. One way to do this would be through using technology such as the cloud rather than physical storage devices. We also need to increase material efficiency and recycling infrastructure. Only then can we begin to solve America’s e-waste problem.

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