The growing problem of e-waste

By Eugene Clark
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 22, 2014
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While air and water pollution capture the headlines, a rapidly growing but less obvious pollution problem around the world is found in e-waste. E-waste involves the chemical residues found in our various technology products. Just a few examples of e-waste include cadmium, which is found in the batteries of personal computers. Most electronic equipment also contains lead. Mercury is contained in many lighting displays. Polyvinyl chloride is frequently used for cabling in circuit boards. These and many other chemicals are harmful and in many cases extremely toxic to humans. For example, cadmium is found in personal computer batteries and monitors. It is extremely toxic to humans and the environment. Too often, e-waste ends up in landfill and can seep into the environment as well as harm those who come into contact with it.

According to a 2012 UN Report, the “United States topped the list of the 184 countries analyzed for the total volume of e-waste generated each year, at 9.4 million tons in 2012; followed by China, with 7.2 million tons. By comparison, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency reported that the U.S. generated 1.9 million to 2.2 million tons of e-waste in 2005.”

China, with its rapid growth in technology use (e.g. over 1 billion mobile phones) will continue to be a leading producer of e-waste. China also is the recipient of e-waste from other countries such as the United States which transports old computers, mobile phones and other technology for recycling. China breaks down the old, recovers what is recyclable and the e-waste remains.

Not only is the use of technology increasing, but the shelf life of existing models has become increasingly shorter, as consumers throw away the old and purchase the newest version. Mobile phones and laptops now seldom last more than a couple of years. The result is an ever growing problem which needs to get on the agenda of lawmakers and communities. The UN reported in 2012 for example that “the mountain of used electrical and electronic devices, known as ‘e-waste,’ is expected to grow from 48.9 million metric tons worldwide in 2012 to 65.4 million metric tons in 2017.”

Also adding to the problem of e-waste is that there is no coherent legal framework that governs it. In the United States, for example, each state has its own laws governing such waste and there is wide discrepancy in other countries. Even in countries with an adequate legal framework, laws can be subverted as a result of corruption and lack of enforcement. Among the positive international steps is the Basel Convention which seeks to regulate the movement of hazardous waste.

The Basel Convention was brought into force in 1992 and over 170 countries have joined the convention, including China. The enforcement and sufficiency of funding for this initiative, however, has been criticized as insufficient.

Albert Einstein reminds us: “The world we have created today has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.” There is an urgent need for scientists to ramp up research about the problem of e-waste and look for innovative and cost-productive ways to solve this problem before it gets dramatically worse. Such research efforts will hopefully find new and innovative ways to more effectively recycle such technology and turn the negative into a positive. For example, effective computer and television recycling can break down components so that a large percentage can be re-used.

Education is also part of the answer. An example is the United Nations' Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative, which is a global effort involving the collaboration of governments around the world to raise awareness and promote innovation in disposing and recycling e-waste. In brief, we need to do more to educate students, citizens and organizations about responsible e-waste disposal and handling. Governments should also be more proactive in sponsoring and organizing recycling programs.

Culturally, I would argue that our consumer “throw-away” society where we constantly want what is new is also part of the problem. As I have written in earlier opinion articles, pollution is really an issue of national security. The present generation needs to see our environment not as something which we own or have inherited from our ancestors. Instead, we should view the environment as a scarce resource and essential to the quality of life -- something that we benefit from and have a responsibility to preserve, protect and enhance for the benefit of future generations.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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