Where does our e-waste end up?


Today, electronics do not last as long as they used to. Gone are the days when your TV or refrigerator lasted years; or you would use duct tape or elastic bands to keep your remote controls and Walkmans from falling apart. Nowadays, most people don’t think twice about buying the latest and greatest technology, from new smartphones that monitor your vital signs to larger and thinner televisions that talk to you.

While our hunger for electronics and technology keeps growing, what happens to our old stuff? As new electronic gadgets become more easily available and widely distributed, so does the disposal problem of the outdated equipment.

Most people do not know or are unsure of how to dispose of electronic waste. It is estimated that only 20% of the 45 million metric tons of e-waste is actually recycled, meaning that almost 80% is ending up somewhere. Where does it go?

The majority of e-waste gets sent to the landfills. Landfilling e-waste can be problematic because it adds more materials to our landfills, filling them up faster. This results in new landfills needing to be built. Second, the harmful and toxic substances found in e-waste (e.g., arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and plastics) can leach into the soil and water, which impacts the environment and people.

Some e-waste ends up incinerated, releasing harmful pollutants into the air as a result of the toxic substances found in electronics.

A bigger problem is the hundreds of millions of tons of e-waste that gets shipped to developing countries each year. These countries do not have the capacity to properly recycle or dispose of the electronics or their hazardous components. As a result, the e-waste litters streets and poisons residents. Many children and women work in scavenging the metal remains by burning and breaking apart the electronics looking for valuable materials they can sell, and as a result, they are exposed to all kinds of toxic substances. For further information on the dangerous dumping of e-waste across the developing world, check out the video Digital Dumping Ground.

So what should be done to avoid the large quantity of e-waste ending up in the landfill or exported to developing nations? How do we avoid exposing our environment and people to the harmful and toxic substances found in electronics? The solution is to reuse, reduce and recycle! Next week’s feature will provide information on how to reduce our e-waste footprint and recycle responsibly.

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 Telecommunication 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/.

WGBH Educational Foundation. 2011. Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/ghana804/video/video_index.html.