The Environmental & Social Effects of E-Waste (With Facts & Statistics)

The Environmental & Social Effects of E-Waste (With Facts & Statistics)

As you would expect, electronic waste (also known as e-waste) refers to discarded electronic devices. This can include items like cell phones, tablets, computers, TVs, or any other electronics that are no longer needed or used by the owner. 

These old electronic items must be disposed of properly to avoid the damaging effects of e-waste pollution.

In this article, we will highlight the problem with e-waste, and go over its effects on the environment, human health, and society. Then, we’ll also explain ways you can help solve this problem.

Why is E-Waste Such a Big Problem?

1. We’re using (and discarding) more and more electronics

The consumer electronics industry has grown rapidly over the past few decades, as the world enters the modern computer age. A recent report indicates that the consumer electronics industry in the US is set to rise by 6% year on year.

As the world population grows, we use and discard more and more electronic devices, which leads to more and more electronic waste.

In fact, there are now more cell phones than there are people on the planet. With our tendency to carelessly throw away products and continually purchase new ones, this can create a big problem. 

2. Only a Small proportion of E-Waste is Properly Recycled

The EPA suggests that only 12.5% of electronic waste is properly recycled. When not recycled properly, the resources put into the production of electronics is lost.

E-waste landfill filled with old computers - The Environmental & Social Effects of E-Waste (With Facts & Statistics)
Image by George Hotelling from Canton, MI, United States (E-waste recycling in Ann Arbor) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Even worse, most electronic waste is simply shipped to developing countries, where they are picked for parts. Then, they are left in large dump sites where toxins can pollute the surrounding environment (we’ll talk more about this later).

In 2018 along, a staggering 41.8 million tons of electronic waste across the globe was shipped to developing countries to be dumped.

3. Manufacturers Implement ‘Planned Obsolescence’ into Electronics

Planned obsolescence is when a product is specifically designed to break down (or become obsolete) after a specific amount of time. This is done to force a consumer to buy a new product earlier than they would normally have to. 

For example, both Apple and Samsung have been fined for deliberately slowing down older phones through software updates. Most Android phone manufacturers also stop supporting software updates after 2 years, which make older phones seem obsolete to the consumer.

Planned obsolescence contributes to increasing the amount of e-waste, as people throw out their old devices and update to newer ones earlier than required.

The Effects of E-Waste on the Environment (Why is E-Waste Bad For the Environment?)

1. Electronics Contain Heavy Metals and Toxic Chemicals

Electronics are complex devices that contain hundreds of components and multiple different metals and chemicals. According to Greenpeace, mobile phones will usually contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium, as well as hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants.

In a landfill, these toxins leach out and can pollute the surrounding environment. This risk is made higher when e-waste is improperly recycled, which you’ll learn about in the next section. 

2. Improper Recycling Causes Air, Soil, and Water Pollution

As already mentioned, most electronic waste is sent to developing countries like China to be dismantled and dumped. 

The problem? The dismantling and recycling methods used in these countries are primitive at best. 

Recycling is done for profit so the cheapest dismantling methods are used to extract the valuable resources in electronics. This means that the environment is often disregarded, and pollution runs rampant.

  1. Air Pollution: Burning of wires (to extract the copper underneath the rubber insulation) releases hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. 
  2. Water Pollution: When disposed of improperly, toxins from e-waste seeps with ponds, lakes and groundwater.
  3. Soil Pollution: The waste-products of recycling (along with leftover e-waste) is dumped into fields or other large landfill sites. From here, chemicals leach into the ground and are absorbed by plants from the soil. These metals not only destroy the plants, but also are then consumed by other living beings, leading to a poisonous food chain. 

3. Marine Life is at Risk

Some electronics end up being dumped into waterways, whether accidentally or on purpose. Once there, electronic components start to break down and the toxins inside the devices can seep out into the environment. 

These polluting chemicals or heavy metals, like lead, travel through water and contaminate or poison marine life.

4. Mining for Metals used to produce new Phones is causing Habitat Loss

When electronics are not properly recycled, much of the precious metals and resources that were used to produce the device are lost to landfills. This creates further demand for newly mined materials.

Mining operations often clear cut forests and use explosives to blast into the ground. Mining can also leak toxic by-products into nearby rivers and nearby soil. Needless to say, this disturbs the natural ecosystem and leads to habitat loss for the species living in the area.

Image illustrating deforestation and logging

Overall, habitat destruction results in the mass migration or starvation of animal species living in the area, and is the number one cause of extinction of animal species worldwide.

For example, the habitat destruction stemming from the aggressive mining of cobalt is driving gorillas to extinction in the Congo. (Cobalt is a metal used in mobile phones and other electronics).

The Societal and Health Effects of E-Waste

1. Humans can absorb toxic chemicals through the air and groundwater

Primitive recycling techniques in developing countries means that toxins from e-waste are commonly released into the air, soil, or surrounding water sources. 

According to the WHO, “E-waste-connected health risks may result from direct contact with harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), from inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as from accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food.”

These health risks are even more apparent children, as their intake of air, water and food in proportion to their weight is significantly more compared to adults. Thus, their risk of harmful chemical absorption is increased. The ramifications to exposure are potentially lower IQs and learning issues.

2. Toxins from E-Waste Can End Up In Our Food

Hazardous substances from e-waste stay absorbed in the ground for a long time. Farming on land contaminated with toxins from e-waste can create unsafe conditions for food.

If e-waste ends up in the ocean and leaches chemicals into shellfish, molluscs, fish, or other marine animals, those toxins can also be passed on to humans. Chemicals that are embedded in seafood will remain once they are caught and cooked, and will eventually end up in our bodies. 

3. E-Waste Can Pollute Drinking Water

When disposed of improperly, toxins from e-waste mixes with ponds, lakes and groundwater. Communities that directly depend on these sources of water then consume it unknowingly. These heavy metals are hazardous for all forms of living beings. 

4. E-Waste Recycling in Developing Countries Takes Advantage of Child Labour

In developing countries, much of the dismantling and recycling work is done by hand using primitive methods. Wiring is stripped by burning the outer rubber coating and computer chips are dipped into acid baths to remove precious metals. 

Workers (including child labourers) commonly work long hours in unsafe conditions, for very little pay.

Not only are these workers susceptible to the long-term effects of toxins like lead, but they are also at risk of being injured or killed by fallen equipment and hazardly dumped electronics. 

How You Can Help Reduce E-Waste

Now that you know how bad e-waste is, how can you help solve this problem?

1. Re-evaluate your decision to buy a new electronic device

Always think twice before upgrading or buying a new electronic device:

  1. Do you really need this new device?
  2. Is it a need, or more of a want
  3. Will it add value to your personal or professional life in any way?

If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, then it might be best to re-evaluate your thoughts, and avoid buying it.

2. Donate or Sell Old Electronics Instead of Throwing Them Out

One of the best and easiest methods of reducing the electronic waste footprint is to sell or donate your electronic gadgets to those in need. 

A good place to sell old electronics (without any fees) is Craigslist. You can sell unwanted devices by posting a local ad and meeting up with potential buyers. 

Donating also gives your gadget a new life, and makes you feel good about yourself too!

3. Properly Recycle Your Electronics

Recycling old electronics allows the expensive electronic parts inside to be reused. This can save a lot of energy and reduce the need for mining of new raw resources, or manufacturing new parts.

You can find electronic recycling programs in your local area by doing a Google search for “recycle electronics” and your city or area name. Just make sure that you are going to a reputable recycler who will responsibly recycle your e-waste!

Cell Phone, Tablets, and Laptop Recycling

In the case of cell phones, tablets and laptops there are a number of specialist electronics buyback companies that will buy your device after you don’t want it anymore.

Your devices will then either be refurbished or sold directly in the used electronics market, so that it can be used by someone else. 

If the device has suffered too much damage or it’s too old, then it can be broken down into parts so that the components can be used again in another device. 

This philosophy of reusing, repairing and refurbishing electronics ensures that wherever possible, all parts and materials are used again, and nothing ends up being irresponsibly disposed off.

4. Spread the Word

One of the best ways to help reduce e-waste is to spread the word about its effects and the problems that it causes. The more people who know, the more people who will take action, and the more we can reduce our e-waste problem.

You can share this article and its ideas through word-of-mouth, or by using the social media share buttons at the end of this article (scroll down).


This post was written in part by Sarah McConomy

SARAH MCCONOMY (FCIM, MA)

With over 20 years experience in marketing, research and the co-founder of a number of successful online businesses in the electronics sector, Sarah regularly writes about the environmental impact of electronics recycling. Sarah is now the Commercial Lead for SellCell.com, the No. 1 phone trade in price comparison site in the US helping users get the most cash for their old cell phone. The site compares the prices and user ratings of 20+ of the US’s leading electronics buyback partners, all who have been vetted by the company to adhere to the best practice recycling of old electronics.

Email: sarah.mcconomy@sellcell.com

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