Electronic waste, or e-waste, can most easily be described as any product made with a battery or electric plug at the end of its lifecycle. The vast array of products that this covers is surprising once you start thinking about it - your stove, cell phone, wristwatch, computer, electric toothbrush, fridge, the list goes on. Worldwide53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated in 2019, with the vast majority of it improperly disposed of at dumpsites worldwide.
There is no global standard for e-waste, and how countries tackle the issue ranges greatly. In some places like the EU and Japan, there are genuine efforts at all product lifecycle levels to minimize its future risk to the environment. But in many other countries, the issue is not yet a top priority, and many leaders find little incentive to act on the matter in any meaningful way.
Types of E-Waste
We will use the European perspective to discuss the specifics of what e-waste is, as the EU is a world leader in the e-waste initiative, with a well-developed campaign. The European Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) is a directive that standardizes the collection, treatment, recycling, and recovery of e-waste. In this aim, it categorizes products into one of ten different categories.
- Large household appliances (air conditioners, fridges, etc.)
- Small household appliances (vacuums, toasters, etc.)
- IT and telecommunications equipment (computers, printers, etc.)
- Consumer equipment and photovoltaic panels (televisions, radios, etc.)
- Lighting equipment (fluorescent lamps, etc.)
- Electrical and electronic tools (drills, sewing machines, etc.)
- Toys, leisure, and sports equipment (video games, exercise equipment, etc.)
- Medical devices (ventilators, testing materials, etc.)
- Monitoring and control instruments (smoke detectors, thermostats, etc.)
- Automatic dispensers (ATMs, drink dispensers, etc.)
The categorization of products allows for precise regulation, as the directive requires a certain amount (measured by weight) of WEEE materials to be recycled each year. But perhaps most importantly, it provides a decisive way to educate the public on the impact these goods have on the environment and the humans who handle them after they've been tossed away.
E-Waste = Hazardous Waste
While we mostly see the exterior of our electrical products covered in smooth plastics and metals, the components within contain numerous hazards - over 1,000 different possible toxins - such as arsenic, mercury, flame retardants, and lead. The average computer screen has at least five to eight pounds of lead. Exposure to these harmful toxins can affect every aspect of human health, leading to a decreased IQ, birth defects, cancer, bone density loss, and nervous system impairment.
The danger is not so much in using these products but in the dismantling and recycling of them. It requires proper protective gear, worker training, the correct equipment and infrastructure, and enforcement of all of the above to safely and securely process the toxic byproducts. Without that level of care in place, the risk to the environment and the humans physically handling the material is great.
From Your Trash Can to...
The Basel Convention was signed in 1989, limiting the movement of hazardous materials, including WEE materials, between countries. Today 53 countries have signed and ratified the convention, making the transportation of these dangerous materials illegal worldwide. The ban aims to minimize the risk that less developed countries will become responsible for dismantling hazardous goods, as they often have little to no safeguards in place.
Yet movement still takes place and in alarming quantities. In 2019, only 17.4% of all e-waste was adequately managed or recycled in facilities. Instead, more developed nations sent the bulk of it to less developed countries where it was improperly incinerated or sent to a landfill to either sit and be buried by more trash or scavenged by local workers seeking the valuable materials inside.
In any instance, toxins are released into their immediate surroundings' atmosphere, soil, and water systems. These chemicals harm not only the near inhabitants but also the greater environment and ecosystem. Therefore, the proper collection and processing of e-waste is paramount in the fight against climate change. It is estimated that the 17.4% of e-waste that was properly handled prevented at least 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents from entering the atmosphere. That is to say nothing about the fire retardants in the water supply or the mercury in the soil.
What Can I Do with my E-Waste?
The most important thing we can do to minimize the impact of e-waste on humans and the environment is to prolong the life of our products. Learning simple tricks like properly charging your cell phone is one simple way to extend the life of your most-used items. You could also consider purchasing used electronics instead of brand new ones or repairing broken items instead of replacing them. Doing so will ensure you are limiting e-waste simply by choosing to invest in the longest possible life of a product.
If your product cannot be reused or repaired, ensure that it is properly recycled at an electronics recycling facility. You can call your local recycling center to check what items they will accept or use an e-waste locator like E-Stewards. Electronics stores such as Best Buy and Staples will also typically take used electronics; call ahead to ensure they have the capacity.
If you decide to purchase a new item, opt for one that is third-party certified and marked as having a sustainable life cycle. For example,ISO 14024 is an internationally recognized certification. You can also check a brand's Ethically score with the Chrome extension as you're looking at products. We continuously ensure our data is up to date so that you're always receiving the most accurate information available. You can view our methodologies pagefor further details.