Electronic pollution – The upcoming environmental concern
We all have heard and read about environmental degradation and how human activities are leaving a big scar on the environment and its vital resources today. People and experts around the globe are spreading widespread awareness about air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution and noise pollution. But in this post, I am going to enlighten you about an often overlooked and unthought form of pollution that is slowly crawling into the limelight and has been increasing terrifically with each passing day. We call it Electronic pollution.
What is electronic pollution?
Electronic pollution is the form of pollution caused by the discarded electrical or electronic devices. Used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal are also considered e-waste. Informal processing of e-waste in developing countries can lead to adverse human health effects and environmental pollution.
Electronic scrap components, such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful components such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants. Recycling and disposal of e-waste may involve significant risk to the health of workers and communities in developed countries and great care must be taken to avoid unsafe exposure in recycling operations and leaking of materials such as heavy metals from landfills and incinerator ashes.
The outbreak of any and every type of pollution today has a story behind its origin. So before we get into further details and information regarding electronic pollution, let us first figure out how the entire scenario of electronic pollution starts and how it came into existence.
What is e-waste?
The term “waste” logically refers to residue or material which is dumped by the buyer rather than recycled, including residue from reuse and recycling operations, because loads of surplus electronics are frequently commingled (good, recyclable, and non-recyclable). Electronic waste also called e-waste is created when an electronic product is discarded after the end of its useful life.
It is hoarding as well as disposing of unused or irreparable, electronic items like mobile phones, television sets, computer sets, refrigerator, tape recorders etc. It includes a long unending list of electrical equipment. These may be classified into 3 parts. Recycled, Non-recycled and Risky. Discarded computers, office electronic equipment, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones, television sets, and refrigerators include used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal as well as re-usable (working and repairable electronics) and secondary scraps (copper, steel, plastic, etc.).
Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are considered one of the hardest types to recycle. They have a relatively high concentration of lead and phosphors (not to be confused with phosphorus), both of which are necessary for the display. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) includes discarded CRT monitors in its category of “hazardous household waste”.
The rising disposal of e-waste
Disposal of e-waste is an emerging global environmental and public health issue, as this waste has become the most rapidly growing segment of the formal municipal waste stream in the world. With technology advancement surplus in demand and surplus in supply leads to excessive wastage of products. With the release of new technology every year, people tend to adapt to a newer one rather old product. Thus it tends to another of clearance.
Sometimes we could find that people discard old electronics at the least inconvenience and prefer new ones. It is not being lousy but we find certain cases like buying the new printer is much cheaper than its ink cartridges. The distribution of price pushes people to buy new products. The high cost of repairing the product also tends to more of replacing the old with the new one at a cheaper rate. Thus, replacing the older devices and gadgets with newer ones implies more and more disposal of the old ones.
How the e-waste radiation harms the environment?
Computers and entertainment centers and other electrical appliances convert the alternating current they are receiving to direct current which the equipment will use to power its activities using less electricity. In this process, high frequencies are produced that go out onto the electrical circuit and cause high-frequency electromagnetic waves to radiate out from the circuits.
In other words, some of the high frequencies produced are radio wave and microwave frequencies that disseminate their energy through the air rather than follow the electrical circuits. Scientific Research has shown these “polluting” high-frequency fields to have specific biological effects that are detrimental to the overall health of the individual. The rapid growth of the production of electrical and electronic products has meant an equally rapid growth in the amount of electronic waste (e-waste), much of which is illegally imported to India, for disposal presenting a serious environmental challenge.
E-waste: Global facts and figures
- In 2009, discarded TVs, computers, peripherals (including printers, scanners, fax machines) mice, keyboards, and cell phones totaled about 2.37 million short tons.
- E-waste represents 2% of America’s trash in landfills, but it equals 70% of overall toxic waste.
- 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste are disposed of worldwide every year.
- Cell phones and other electronic items contain high amounts of precious metals like gold or silver. Americans dump phones containing over $60 million in gold/silver every year.
- A large number of what is labeled as “e-waste” is actually not waste at all, but rather whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for materials recovery.
- Only 12.5% of e-waste is currently recycled.
- For every 1 million cell phones that are recycled, 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium can be recovered.
- Recycling 1 million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year.
- E-waste is still the fastest growing municipal waste stream in America, according to the EPA.
- It takes 530 lbs of fossil fuel, 48 lbs of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to manufacture one computer and monitor.
- Electronic items that are considered to be hazardous include, but are not limited to: Televisions and computer monitors that contain cathode ray tubes, LCD desktop monitors, LCD televisions, Plasma televisions, Portable DVD players with LCD screens.
Adverse effects of e-waste on humans and the environment
A recent study about the rising electronic pollution in the USA revealed that the average computer screen has five to eight pounds or more of Lead representing 40 percent of all the lead in US landfills. All these toxins are persistent, bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs) that create environmental and health risks when computers are incinerated, put in landfills or melted down. When computers monitors and other electronics are burned they create cancer-producing dioxins which are released into the air we breathe. If electronics are thrown in landfills, these toxins may leach into groundwater and affect local resources.
The informal e-waste sectors are growing rapidly in the developing countries over than in the developed countries because of the cheapest labor cost and weak legislation systems. Informal processing of e-waste in developing countries can lead to adverse human health effects and environmental pollution. Electronic scrap components, such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful components such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants.
Electronic waste affects nearly every system in the human body because they contain a plethora of toxic components including Mercury, Lead, Cadmium, Polybrominated Flame Retardants, Barium, and Lithium. Even the plastic casings of electronics products contain Polyvinyl Chloride. It has been confirmed that contaminate are moving through the food chain via root plant translocation system, to the human body thereby threatening human health. E-waste-connected health risks may result from direct contact with these harmful materials from inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as from accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food.
The health effects of these toxins on humans include birth defects, brain, heart, liver, kidney and skeletal system damage. They will also significantly affect the nervous and reproductive systems of the human body. Furthermore, their bodies’ functional systems such as the central nervous, immune, reproductive and digestive system are still developing and exposure to toxic substances, by hampering further development, may cause irreversible damage.
IN THE NEWS!
With the usage of electrical and electronic equipment on the rise, the amount of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) or simply e-waste produced each day is equally growing enormously around the globe. Electronic pollution is gradually becoming one of the fast-growing pollution issues and countless News articles and case studies regarding e-waste and electronic pollution are spreading like wildfire across the internet.
- According to the survey reports, in the US, about $400 billion is spent on consumer electronics but only 30% are recycled e-waste. The disturbing numbers are just put us in a dilemma that what are the outcomes of rest 70%. Unfortunately, they are actually in the dump yard.
- The biggest and the alarming issue is that India marks the second largest consumer market for mobile phones but it is the fifth largest country producing e-waste. Wherein according to the states Mumbai tops, followed by New Delhi, Bangalore, and Chennai
- Recently in Kochi, India, 80 consignments are seized by the customs stating all contained electronic waste which are imported from foreign countries including Germany and England. Now the consignments are kept under a vigil and inspection by the Customs and DGFT (Director General of Foreign Trade).
- According to the report dated February 17th, 2017, China has topped in heaping the e-waste. There is an urgent need for an organization to cut the waste as much as possible as it could definitely lead to precarious consequences.
The relationship between nature and the human society over the past two decades has been such that whenever we humans have caused any harm to the environment, we have taken measures to try and reduce the negative impacts. Same is the case with electronic pollution and e-waste. With the rising concern over the effects of e-waste on human health and environment, countries and organizations are gradually taking initiatives to promote several e-waste management techniques.
The fast-growing electronic pollution problems worldwide can severely contaminate the environment and threaten human health through a various variety of toxic substances, if disposal protocols are not meticulously managed. Several tools including Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Material Flow Analysis (MFA), Multi-Criteria Analysis (MCA) and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) have been developed to manage e-waste, especially in developed countries. The key to success in terms of e-waste management is to develop eco-design devices, properly collect e-waste, recover and recycle material by safe methods, dispose of e-waste by suitable techniques, forbid the transfer of used electronic devices to developing countries, and raise awareness of the impact of e-waste.
Recycling raw materials from end-of-life electronics is the most effective solution to the growing e-waste problem. Most electronic devices contain a variety of materials, including metals that can be recovered for future uses. By dismantling and providing reuse possibilities, intact natural resources are conserved and air and water pollution caused by hazardous disposal are avoided. Additionally, recycling reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacturing of new products. Materials that can be recycled include “ferrous (iron-based) and non-ferrous metals, glass, and various types of plastic”.
Electronic waste processing techniques can also be employed for efficiently managing e-waste. The process usually first involves dismantling the equipment into various parts (metal frames, power supplies, circuit boards, plastics), often by hand, but increasingly by automated shredding equipment. The advantages of this process are the human’s ability to recognize and save working and repairable parts, including chips, transistors, RAM, etc. However, the labor is cheapest in countries with the lowest health and safety standards which stands as a major disadvantage of e-waste processing as well.
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- Ankita Bhatia
- Arijit Samajdar
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