Environmental Threats of Electronic Waste

A young girl in China plays with a pile of wires on the ground in front of her as she watches her mother hunt through heaps of old electronics. She is sitting in the middle of an expansive field of wires, old monitors, damaged cell phones, and . . . potent toxins.

China’s ports receive about 70% of the world’s 500 million tons of electronic waste ever year, providing illegal work for thousands of Chinese citizens as they harvest, melt, and resell the raw materials. Simultaneously, however, this source of income generates enormously detrimental health effects, and the burning of electronic waste (often required to withdraw the raw metals embedded in the machinery), can lead to cancer. Over 80% of children living in China’s Guiyu Region (a large e-waste dumping site) have lead poisoning. Where does this e-waste come from and how can we reduce its harmful health effects?

As we go through the cycles of new iphones, laptops, TVs, et cetera, it is far easier to toss our old items into the trash can or drive it to the dump than to research proper disposal programs and sites. These options can be time-consuming to look into, and often times the nearest electronics recycling location is far out of the way. Coming up with meaningful solutions to global environmental issues requires serious thought and effort, a commitment that is difficult to adhere to in daily life. Most people throw away their e-waste incorrectly simply because they do not realize the ramifications of their actions or because they are unaware of how to responsibly dispose of it; the easiest solution is the trash can or the dump. To compound the issue, the turnover rate of technological products is ever-increasing and changing, driving consumer materialism to an alarming level.

Shockingly, some companies admit to having the equipment and knowledge needed to completely phase out toxins from some, if not all, technologies. Cheaper production options evidently outweigh the availability of safer methods, and justify the continued manufacturing of harmful materials. After production, it is also expensive for businesses to assume the costs of recycling and a slower, mindful dissembling of electronics. Just like people, firms often choose the easier, more profitable option of allowing consumers to deal with old electronics on the own time and by their own dollar.

We can, therefore, identify two key issues to e-waste recycling: 1.) People tend to seek the easiest solutions and, 2.) Businesses prioritize economic profit. Both of these factors have a silver lining: people are searching for easy solutions out of convenience, not (for the most part), due to a lack of moral conscience, and business practices can be changed with consumer pressure as long as they continue to yield profits. If people are willing to take the steps to recycle, then part of the solution may be simply increasing awareness of the need and publicizing the options., for instance, promises to plant a tree for every cell phone people give them to recycle. If the pre-existing solutions require less research to discover, people will likely be far more inclined to seek them out, or at least give serious thought to the reasoning behind their existence. Some manufacturing companies also offer to take back their old electronics for a small fee, (or free), and recycle them properly. This suggests that in exchange for an increased PR, companies are willing to temporarily lower their profits, pointing to consumer opinion and pressure as the key to procuring this change.

Environmental responsibility versus convenience is not an inevitable dichotomy; it is just a relationship far easier to accept than it is to challenge. If public awareness, government involvement, and business practices all hinge upon consumer activism, this means that a solution to e-waste pollution is, potentially, readily achievable. We are being presented with an opportunity to procure change, and as consumers we have a responsibility to instigate that change. Perhaps the young girl in China will someday forget her childhood playground and become an advocate for global health, environmental responsibility, and social consciousness.