Three Ways that E-Waste Affects the Environment
As the world’s fastest-growing waste stream for almost a decade now, e-waste affects the environment in truly detrimental ways. And it’s not slowing down.
The amount of e-waste generated annually has grown by over 7% since 2020 alone, with 59.4 million metric tons projected by the end of 2022. This growth is only increasing, with the amount of e-waste created annually expected to grow 26% by 2030 and double by 2050. While the volume of e-waste has slowly risen for four decades, there are two big factors contributing to its current acceleration.
The first is growing incomes in low- and middle-income countries which allow more people than ever to access consumer electronics. The second is the increasing availability of previously unthought-of electronic products to consumers in middle- and high-income countries. Products like e-cigarettes and electric vehicles are just two examples of products that, due to their increased popularity, have begun contributing more e-waste to landfills over the past decade.
These facts together paint a clearer picture for how we’ve gotten to a place where e-waste is growing now at 3 times the speed of any other waste stream. However, there is little use in speaking abstractly with percentages and big numbers about a very real issue with very real impacts.
So, in this short blog, we’re going to cover how e-waste is harmful to the environment. But, first, we need to understand what is inside fo e-waste of if we’re going to understand how it affects the environment.
What is E-Waste Made Of
The electronics which power our lives are composed of substances which are harmful to the environment and our health.
Valuable metals like gold, platinum, silver and palladium line our circuit boards while other metals like copper and iron are used in wiring. Hazardous materials like radioactive isotopes and mercury power sensors while toxic PCBs are produced by transformers and capacitors.
However, this is only a small enumeration of the toxic materials that comprise e-waste. Thanks to research conducted at Sathyabama University in India, we now have a more comprehensive view of the materials that constitute e-waste. Two tables detailing the materials and substances inside of e-waste are below.
However, simply knowing what is inside of e-waste still doesn’t allow us to fully comprehend how e-waste harms our planet. To do that, we have to evaluate the three primary channels through which e-waste negatively impacts the environment: air, water, and soil.
How e-waste pollutes the air
E-waste pollutes the air primarily as a consequence of improper recycling processes that are typical at informal e-waste processing plants located in developing economies. E-waste workers dismantle and shred electronics at these plants, which flings large amounts of dust and other particulates into the air.
The practice of burning e-waste with little economic value and large concentrations of plastic compounds these effects. Since it’s common to burn low-value e-waste at lower temperatures, this it’s easy for toxic dioxins to lift and hang in the air.
On the other-hand, e-waste workers use acids, desoldering materials, and other chemicals to dissolve e-waste with high-value materials like gold and silver . These techniques then release additional damaging fumes into local communities.
Together, these practices produce staggeringly negative consequences to the respiratory health of workers and civilians and produce increased risk for chronic diseases and cancers.
How e-waste contaminates water
Recyclers dispose of acids and other chemicals they rely on to strip precious metals from e-waste into streams, ponds, and rivers. Then, the heavy metals inside of e-waste – like lead, arsenic, and cadmium – then compound this damage by seeping into water tables from landfills and e-waste dumps.
Eventually, this contaminates local waterways and negatively affects the health of people many miles downstream. However, the e-waste’s impact on water quality has consequences that extend far beyond human health.
Increased acidification of waterways leads to more marine life and fish dying. The heavy metals that are present then leach into those same waterways where they damage fishes’ tissues and gills.
Over time, these two contaminants – acid and heavy metals – decimate biodiversity. This creates a domino effect where some organisms – previously constrained by predators – are then able to flourish and dominate the area.
As a result, increased exposure to e-waste leads to ecosystem collapse in and around our waterways.
How e-waste contaminates the soil
As we’ve covered previously, improperly disposed of e-waste leaches heavy metals and flame retardants into local groundwater. Unfortunately, communities surrounding e-waste dumps often rely on that same water to irrigate their crops. The contaminated irrigation then seeps into the ground where it poisons current crops and sets future crops up for failure.
Additionally, the dismantling, shredding, or burning of e-waste can also release large, coarse particles into the air. However, due to their size and weight, these particles then quickly fall back to Earth where they subsequently contaminate soil. Shredding and burning of e-waste also produces toxic ash containing heavy metals and flame retardants which then leach into soil.
Once e-waste’s materials make it to the soil, they can alter the composition of the soil in wildly erratic ways. The heavy metals, PBDEs, dioxins, and acids and other chemicals in e-waste can damage plant cells, alter plants’ metabolisms, and slow growth of critical microorganisms that are critical for healthy soils.
What should we do about e-waste?
Unfortunately, e-waste is ravaging our planet and degrading the health of its people – right now. However, traditional methods of waste diversion and recapture like recycling aren’t going to sufficiently how e-waste affects the environment.
If we want to protect our planet from scourge e-waste, we’re going to have to start prioritizing reuse above all. By embracing this central principle of the circular economy, we can begin diverting valuable electronics away from landfills and back into the hands of people who need them.
To learn more about what can happen when organizations, individuals, and governments join together to tackle the e-waste crisis, click here.