Electronic Waste

Electronic waste (e-waste) encompasses a broad and growing range of electronic devices ranging from large household appliances such as refrigerators, washers and dryers, air conditioners, hand-held cellular phones, fluorescent lamp bulbs, and personal stereos. Where once consumers purchased a stereo console or television set with the expectation that it would last for a decade or more, the increasingly rapid evolution of technology has effectively rendered everything disposable. Consumers no longer take a malfunctioning toaster, VCR or telephone to a repair shop. Replacement is often easier and cheaper than repair. And while these ever-improving gadgets—faster, smaller, and cheaper—provide many benefits, they also carry a legacy of waste (SVTC 2001:2). The most visible and harmful component of e-waste today is the personal computer.

E-waste is the most rapidly growing waste stream in the world. It is a crisis not only of quantity but also one born of toxic ingredients—such as the lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and brominated-flame retardants that pose extraordinary occupational and environmental health threats (BAN and SVTC 2002:1). Computer and television displays (CRTs) contain an average of 4 to 8 pounds of lead each. The estimated 315 million computers that became obsolete between 1997 and 2004 contain a total of more than 1.2 billion pounds of lead. Monitor glass contains about 20 percent lead by weight. When these components are illegally disposed of and crushed in landfills, the lead is released into the environment, posing a hazardous legacy for current and future generations. Consumer electronics already constitute 40 percent of lead found in landfills. About 70 percent of the heavy metals (including mercury and cadmium) found in landfills come from electronic equipment discards. These heavy metals and other hazardous substances found in electronics can contaminate groundwater and pose other environmental and public health risks. Lead can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood system and kidneys in humans. Lead accumulates in the environment, and has highly acute and chronic toxic effects on plants, animals and microorganisms. Children suffer developmental effects and loss of mental ability, even at low levels of exposure. Computers and other electronics constitute a significant component of the physical and communicative infrastructure of cities. Given the level of natural resources required to produce these commodities, and the ecological damage that results from their production and disposal, e-waste is a symptom of the problematic of the human-nature interactions inherent in urban spaces (Keil 2003).

An estimated 80 percent of the US's computer waste collected for recycling is exported to Asia, where it is known to be dumped and recycled under very hazardous conditions (GrassRoots Recycling Network 2003a). Environmental activists have called this "toxic colonialism" and a "global environmental injustice" (Puckett, personal communication, 5 March 2002).

0 0

Post a comment