Most of have heard by now that it’s not a good idea to just throw your old electronic devices in the trash. The awareness of hazardous e-waste has gotten to the point where some office supply and electronics or hardware stores have a big box where you can drop off your unwanted cell phones, old laptop batteries or compact fluorescent light bulbs. Communities have places where you can take your old computer or special recycling days a couple of times a year just for electronics. Savvy businesses and consumers also know that you can sell your unwanted electronics for cash rather than giving it the old heave-ho. So, why is the United Nations warning of a coming crises in e-waste?
This impending threat is coming countries that are now in a rapid development period as well as established patterns in the U.S. and other developed countries. China, India, Africa and Latin America are expected to be dumping large quantities of e-waste in the next 10 years. Why? Primarily because these countries are also becoming big consumers of electronic gadgets. E-waste just from discarded mobile phones will be 7x higher in 2020 than it was in 2007 in China. In India it will be much worse at 18x higher. There are similar large increases predicted for e-waste from old computers and televisions.
Much of this increase in e-waste volume will surely come from the modernization of these now developing countries. But some of it also comes from the industrialized world dumping their electronic trash in other countries. Nigeria, in particular, has long been an international landfill for electronic waste from the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea, among other countries.
So, what’s the big deal with dumping e-waste as long as it isn’t in your back yard? First of all, it’s just not right to be victimizing these poverty stricken people who don’t even realize the toxicity of the materials they’re handling. Your cell phone or computer isn’t going to disintegrate in your home and poison you. But when these devices are smashed apart and cooked to try and recover valuable elements like gold and silver or left to decay in a trash heap, they release toxic chemicals that can ruin your health.
Do you really think that the global ecosphere keeps the bad chemicals over there and completely away from our air and water? Think again. The atmosphere doesn’t observe any national boundaries. It goes around and around the Earth, collecting dust and vapors from one country and blowing them into or raining them down upon other countries. The oceans work the same way. Dump it in the water way over there and you’ll eventually find it washing up on your shores too.
I think it’s good that an international body like the United Nations is sounding the alarm about the growing e-waste problem. We’re long past the day when we can turn a blind eye to pollution no matter where it occurs. This will almost certainly require an international effort to tackle the problem, especially in areas where there is so little awareness of the danger and few resources to properly recycle these materials. Companies like Apple have taken the initiative of offering a free recycling service for your old computer when you buy one of their new ones. That would be a good approach for all manufacturers.
In the meantime, we can all do our parts by ensuring that we turn our old unwanted electronic equipment over to companies that have the capacity to properly dismantle and process the cases and electronic circuit boards. Plus, don’t forget that many electronic gadgets can be easily sold for cash so that they’ll get a new lease on life and you’ll get money you can use for your next high tech acquisition.