The Green Medium is an Emerald Award-winning, youth-run blog that seeks to innovate how we discuss and inform ourselves on environmental concerns.

E-Waste: The World's High-Tech Trash Problem

E-Waste: The World's High-Tech Trash Problem

From household trash to air pollution, waste is one of the biggest environmental problems the world is facing. However, there’s one waste problem growing faster than all others and one that’s much harder to deal with: electronic waste, or e-waste. Over fifty million metric tons of e-waste is produced worldwide every year, according to the United Nations. But what is e-waste exactly and how is it affecting the world?

What is e-waste?

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Simply put, e-waste is any piece of electronics that has been thrown away. People typically think of e-waste as digital technology, like computers or smartphones, but the term e-waste covers all electronics. Items like smoke detectors, vacuum cleaners and fluorescent tubes are all considered e-waste. In all of its forms, e-waste poses a major environmental problem. The amount of electronics ending up in landfills is only increasing every year and the chemicals found in these items can hurt local environments, including local water supplies, if not disposed of properly.

What makes e-waste different?

E-waste is different from regular waste because disposing of it properly can be much more difficult. For one, e-waste often contains chemicals that are hazardous and more work is required to dispose of them properly. When not dealt with appropriately, those chemicals can leak into the air and water. Additionally, disposing of and recycling e-waste is a more labour-intensive process. With so many tiny, intricate parts, the process of breaking down a piece of electronics requires more time and effort. Ultimately, both of these factors make e-waste a challenging environmental issue. You can’t throw e-waste in a landfill like you can with other types of waste.

Some electronics are made to break down

Nothing lasts forever but some electronics aren’t made to last. Some electronics are made with cheap parts that break down quickly and others are purposely made not to last, often referred to as planned obsolescence. Tech companies often purposely shorten the lifespans of their products in order to force consumers to buy that same product again or to upgrade it. Recently, Apple admitted to slowing down older models of iPhones, seemingly in order to encourage people to upgrade, although the company has since claimed that the slow-downs are done to protect aging batteries. Regardless, designing products not to last not only hurts consumers and their wallets but contributes to the growing e-waste problem.

E-waste affects the whole world

E-waste is truly a global problem. Not only do most people around the world use and throw away electronics but e-waste is frequently shipped overseas. Around 80% of North America’s private recyclers are shipping their e-waste to developing countries, according to Jim Puckett, director of the e-waste watchdog Basel Action Network. Most often, the world’s e-waste ends up in specific sites, mostly in the developing world. The town of Guiyu in China has become infamous as one of these e-waste recycling sites. In Guiyu, e-waste is typically recycled in the streets by poor workers. The town’s water and air have become horribly polluted due to chemical leaks and because unusable parts are often burned in the open air. The recycling of e-waste in Guiyu has severely degraded the quality of life in that community, with skin and respiratory issues now rampant. Ultimately, just like with many environmental issues, the problems of the developed world tend to hurt the developing world.

What can you do about e-waste?

There are lots of things an average person can do to deal with their e-waste. One of the biggest things anyone can do is to recycle their electronics or to have them refurbished by an organization like the Electronics Recycling Association so someone else can use them. However, there are many more ways to manage e-waste than just recycling! In fact, there are so ways that we wrote an entire article about all of them, which you can read here.

[Photo provided by Matthew Gwozd]

Q&A with the Electronic Recycling Association

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