What is e-waste? And why is it a problem?


How often do you buy a new cell phone, laptop or TV? What do you do with your old, obsolete electronics? In these gadget-driven days, you probably upgrade your electronics fairly often. Technology advances at such a rapid pace that a newly purchased machine can be virtually obsolete within a year or two. As new electronic gadgets become more easily available and widely distributed, so does the disposal problem of the outdated equipment.

Today, electronic waste, or e-waste, is the fastest growing source of waste globally with approximately 45 million metric tons of e-waste discarded every year (Baldé, Forti, Gray, Kuehr and Stegmann 2017). E-waste is old, broken, unwanted or obsolete electronics such as cell phones, computer towers and monitors, laptops, keyboards, scanners and printers, television sets, gaming consoles, MP3 and CD players, radios, etc.

E-waste is becoming a major problem because of the high demand for new electronics and the speed at which electronics become obsolete. As our hunger for newer, faster and better technology keeps growing, what happens to our old stuff and why is this a concern?

The issue lies in the materials that make up the electronics, as many of the substances are considered hazardous. These toxic substances include lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, plastics and flame retardants. If these electronics are not properly recycled, they can contaminate our soil or pollute our air and drinking water. Once these substances enter the environment, they stick around for a very long time, and exposure to these substances can lead to serious health conditions (e-Stewards 2018).

In addition, recycling these electronics can reduce the consumption of natural resources and energy that is required to produce new materials, as well as lead to the recovery of many valuable resources such as copper, gold, silver, platinum and palladium.

So, while e-waste is 100% recyclable, only 20% of the 45 million metric tons is actually collected and recycled. Why is that? Where does the e-waste end up? Part 2 of our e-Waste overview will provide information on what happens to our e-waste and the issues surrounding disposal.

Reminder about the E-waste Recycling Drive on November 29.  

Sources: Balde, C.P., Forti, V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegman, P. 2017. The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommuncation Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna.e-Stewards. 2018. What's E-Waste. Retrieved from http://e-stewards.org/learn-more/for-consumers/overview/whats-e-waste/