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What is E-Waste, and How is it Harming Our Environment?

Sara Giretto



With the constant growth of technology in the modern world, it is important to consider where electronics go when they reach the end of their life. E-waste is defined as used electronics that are at the end of their useful life that are discarded or recycled. As new technologies emerge, older ones get replaced as they become less desirable, or worse, intentionally lose their functionality to encourage consumers to buy new products. This concept is called planned obsolescence, which is when products are intentionally designed and sold to become non-functional, or obsolete, in a short period of time, decreasing an electronic product’s lifetime and forcing consumers to buy new ones frequently. E-waste is already a pressing issue, with 40 million tonnes generated every year and less than 30% being recycled, and planned obsolescence worsens this problem by turning products into waste far sooner than they should be.

The amount of e-waste we are generating is harmful to the environment for two main reasons: raw materials that could be recycled sit in landfills unused, and chemicals from these products can leach into the environment when improperly disposed of. $57 billion worth of precious metals that go into making electronics have been thrown away, when they could instead go back into making new electronics, reducing the need for more resource extraction through harmful mining practices. Furthermore, electronics that sit in landfills can contaminate the air, water, and soil with chemicals such as mercury and lead. This is harmful to the health of those who live nearby landfills, as it can pollute the water and air in the area, as well as exacerbate environmental issues such as soil degradation and loss of marine life.

Proposed solutions to the issue of e-waste focus mostly on pushing back against planned obsolescence so that consumers do not have to repurchase and dispose of electronics as frequently, as well as pushing for electronics recycling legislation to prevent e-waste from going to landfills. The push for the right to repair in states such as California shows an increasing demand for consumers to have the ability to repair aging electronics themselves, which could encourage maintaining what you already have, rather than going out and replacing your electronics. Unfortunately, there are still no federal laws that mandate electronics recycling; however, 25 states have passed e-waste laws and 16 states have banned electronics from landfills so far. This is a start to addressing e-waste, but with the large role technology plays in our everyday lives, tighter regulations that will hold electronics companies accountable for their design choices and require responsibility for products at the end of their life are extremely important.


Citations

  1. “Cleaning Up Electronic Waste (E-Waste)”, United States Environmental Protection Agency 11/15/2022 https://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/cleaning-electronic-waste-e-waste

  2. Satyro, Walter Cardoso et al., “Planned Obsolescence or Planned Resource Depletion? A Sustainable Approach”, Journal of Cleaner Production 9/10/2018 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652618315695

  3. “Helping Communities Manage Electronic Waste”, United States Environmental Protection Agency 7/15/2022 https://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/helping-communities-manage-electronic-waste

  4. Turrentine, Jeff, “At 59 Million Tons, Our E-Waste Problem Is Getting Out of Control”, Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. 7/24/2020 https://www.nrdc.org/stories/59-million-tons-our-e-waste-problem-getting-out-control

  5. Miller, April, “How Soaring E-Waste Pollution Is Putting Lives at Risk”, Earth.Org 5/3/2022 https://earth.org/e-waste-pollution/

  6. “California - Right to Repair”, The Repair Association https://states.repair.org/states/california/

  7. “United States E-Waste Legislations in 2022”, Compucycle 10/3/2022 https://compucycle.com/blog/united-states-e-waste-legislations-in-2022/

  8. “Map of States With Legislation”, Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse https://www.ecycleclearinghouse.org/contentpage.aspx?pageid=10

  9. “Landfill Ban Map”, Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse 12/22/2020 https://www.ecycleclearinghouse.org/contentpage.aspx?pageid=58


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