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E-Waste Effects on Marine Ecosystems and Solutions

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is the result of thrown away electronics that are replaced, dated, or broken. These electronic devices typically end up in water systems, landfills, or dumping grounds where they break down and pollute the environment surrounding them. The heavy metals and complex chemicals in these electronics have been found in concerningly high concentrations near unregulated e-waste disposal sites, and these pollutants have been shown to make their way into marine systems through runoff water. Many of the substances found in e-waste have been shown to have detrimental and long lasting effects on marine environments.

The substances commonly found in e-waste include heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, mercury, and copper and include more complex chemicals known such as brominated flame retardants (BFRs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDTs), and per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). These substances have been found to be persistent and damaging to marine environments as well as wildlife. Heavy metals in particular have been shown to have devastating effects on wildlife. In extreme cases, entire river ecosystems have collapsed from uncontrolled e-waste pollution and long term exposure to heavy metals. In less severe cases, metals such as lead and cadmium have been shown to directly cause behavioral changes, muscular and neurological degeneration, growth inhibition, organ damage, mortality, and reproductive problems in marine wildlife. These issues within a polluted wildlife population lead to greater effects within an ecosystem. For example, heavy metal toxicity causes increased mortality and decreased births within fish populations. This decrease can also affect predator species, as dwindling prey populations leaves less available food, forcing them to seek food elsewhere or starve. Even without great changes to a population, heavy metals have been shown to bioaccumulate, meaning that they remain within organisms throughout the food chain (e.g. mercury in tuna). Heavy metals have also been shown to diminish aquatic plant growth, the basis of many marine ecosystems, causing indirect and adverse effects to all wildlife in the area.

Due to e-waste being a new type of pollutant, there are also many new chemicals and materials present in electronics not seen in typical pollution. As a result, there is little to nothing known about many of these new chemicals. One example is liquid crystal monomers (LCMs), which are a family of chemicals present in Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs). In many areas where e-waste is prevalent, it mostly consists of obsolete computers and televisions, which often contain LCDs. From what is known, this family of chemicals tend to have long half-lives, ranging from 180 to over 1600 days. This long half-life lends these chemicals a persistent and bioaccumulative nature, which makes them more threatening to marine environments. Persistent pollutants pose a greater risk to environments as they can last longer within them and wildlife, as well as spread to other areas. Specific types of LCMs have been detected dozens of miles from each other within a single environment, dispersed by ocean currents. It is also possible for these complex chemicals to be metabolized by wildlife and broken down into other carcinogenic materials. Additionally, with how common LCMs are in electronic devices, they have been found in higher concentrations than other known toxic compounds, such as PFASs, PBDEs, and DDTs.

Individuals can do their part by trying to use local e-waste recycling facilities rather than throwing away obsolete electronics. These facilities will take electronic devices, ranging from consumer goods such as smartphones to larger devices such as air conditioners, and treat them similarly to other commonly recycled materials like plastics and glass. The electronics are stripped of any major components, which can be repurposed or sold, and the remaining materials are broken down to be reused elsewhere. The Massachusetts government website recommends donating unused electronics to charity or returning them to manufacturers where they can be recycled, and references the Consumer Technology Association, which contains a database of retail and manufacturer locations that accept electronic devices for recycling.

Most legislation uses general language to define and restrict pollution. For example, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 21C §2 of the Department of Environmental Management defines “hazardous waste” as “a waste, or combination of wastes, which because of its quantity, concentration, or physical, chemical or infectious characteristics may cause, or significantly contribute to an increase in mortality or an increase in serious irreversible, or incapacitating reversible illness or pose a substantial present or potential hazard to human health, safety or welfare or to the environment when improperly treated, stored, transported, used or disposed of, or otherwise managed”. However, as e-waste poses a new threat to environments, it is important to prevent further pollution of our water systems. Most major water pollution legislation was made before e-waste was a significant factor, and often contains language similar to this Massachusetts law, such as Section 102 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, which this Massachusetts law also references. As a result, electronic waste is rarely, if ever, directly referenced in water pollution legislation. What needs to be done is improvement of current legislation where necessary, as well as support of new and more expansive legislation at the local, state, and federal levels to prevent loopholes and ensure the safety of our ecosystems from a quickly developing pollution problem.



Huang, J., Nkrumah, P. N., Anim, D. O., & Mensah, E. (2014). E-waste disposal effects on the aquatic environment: Accra, Ghana. Reviews of environmental contamination and toxicology, 229, 19–34.,%20Ghana.pdf

Massachusetts General Laws, Department of Environmental Management, ch. 21C, §2.

Massachusetts. How & Where to Recycle. Government of the State of Massachusetts.

Tao, D., Jin, Q., Ruan, Y., Zhang, K., Jin, L., Zhan, Y., Su, G., Wu, J., Leung, K. M. Y., Lam, P. K. S., & He, Y. (2022). Widespread occurrence of emerging E-waste contaminants – Liquid crystal monomers in sediments of the Pearl River Estuary, China. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 437, N.PAG.


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