Nowadays, everyone has a cell phone or another electronic device. The average household has about twenty-four electronic devices says Gallo (2013), the electronics recycling coordinator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each year or so, a new device comes out and everyone scrambles to buy it, while disposing their older versions. The old cell phone or computer does not just disappear, it gets shipped to less developing countries, particularly Ghana or China. To fix the e-waste disposal problem, there must be a deeper understanding and awareness for the public. According to the EPA (n.
d.), e-waste is defined as, “Used electronics that are nearing the end of their useful life, and are discarded, donated or given to a recycler” (para. 4). The global amount of e-waste reached its peak, 41.8 million tonnes, in 2014, as stated in a United Nations University (UNU) article (Kuehr, Baldé, Wang, & Huisman, 2015).
While certain states such as Mississippi, New Jersey and Washington tried to pass bills in an effort to manage e-waste, no federal law in the United States requires the recycling of e-waste (E-Cycle, 2013; Gallo & Global E-waste Management Network Workshop, 2013). The United States is not part of the Basel Convention, a global agreement regulating transboundary movements of e-waste and protects the environment and human health (United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), n.d.).
The arrangement was put in place in 1992, and is by far the most mutual agreement on hazardous waste. Poor e-waste disposal methods result in negative consequences such as dangerous health effects, and more specifically, damaging reproductive health effects.Flawed disposal methods, including manual disassembly, smelting, and incineration, are the main concern with managing e-waste. Processes within those methods consist of solder recovery, plastic shredding, acid leaching and lead smelting.
Phthalates, used to soften plastic, disrupts the endocrine system and has harmful effects on reproduction, fertility and birth (Environmental Working Group (EWG), n.d). Some people who dismantle e-waste know its harmful effects. As reported by Ruediger Kuehr (2014), head of the Sustainable Cycles program at UNU, people are aware of its effects-red eyes, kidney issues, etc., but are unconcerned since they can earn money from it (as cited in Chen, 2017). While disassembling e-waste is not their main income source, it certainly adds significant pay. Puckett et al., affiliates of the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (2002) found, “E-waste contains over 1,000 different substances, many of which are toxic,” (p.
5). Included are elements such as copper, gold, lead, mercury and beryllium, all of which have highly potent effects. For instance, beryllium is a known carcinogen that causes lung cancer. People are recycling electronics for its valuable materials, like copper and gold (Widmer, Oswald-Krapf, Sinha-Khetriwal, Schnellmann & Böni, 2005). In fact, one ton of e-waste could comprise up to 0.
2 tons of copper, which is worth about 500 Euros. Disassembling e-waste to collect valuable materials is difficult because the profitable components are mixed in with other materials, like plastics, and makes separation expensive (Widmer et al., 2005, as stated in Soderstrom, 2004). Based on this information, it is safe to conclude citizens of e-waste dumping areas are not eagerly dismantling devices. They are aware of the harmful effects of e-waste, however, they continue to work with it anyways because it is an income source. Following this further, if e-waste dismantlers continue to be apathetic, the awful effects of e-waste will continue to persist; thus, making e-waste an even bigger problem. The dilemma between ethics and the future complications with e-waste add even more complexity to this issue. To prevent negative impacts of poor disposal methods, exporters of e-waste should refine their practices or implement a different approach.
Poor e-waste disposal methods lead to harmful health effects in residents and workers living and working near dumping or recycling sites. A study by Staci Simonich, a chemist at Oregon State University (OSU), conducted on residents of a rural village near a Chinese e-waste dumping site found that residents in that area are 1.6 times more likely to develop lung cancer than residents of Guangzhou, a heavily polluted city in China (2013). Equally important, major findings by scholars from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine include thyroid hormone disruption and impaired neurodevelopment (Seeberger et al.
, 2016). The World Health Organization (WHO) (2017) has lead classified as one of ten chemicals of major public health concern. As the research has demonstrated, e-waste has numerous detrimental effects to the public. Because its effects are so severe, it will take a long time to reverse the problems e-waste has caused.
Thus, if regulations were put into place, the timeline to reduce e-waste would shorten significantly.Lack of sustainable e-waste disposal methods affects not only the general health of humans, but also reproductive health. Providing more evidence of the dangerous effects of chemicals deriving from e-waste, Park, Hoerning, Watry, Burgett and Matthias, academics from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, (2017) express, “The concentration of PBDEs in breastmilk was also measured for 6-month old infants at the e-waste sites and was determined to be approximately 57 times greater than the tolerable level set by the US EPA” (p.
4). Similarly, Chen, Dietrich, Huo, & Ho (2010) continue EWG’s comment by stating pregnant women and young children living close to informal e-waste recycling sites are at risk of possible issues with fetus and child neurodevelopment. Associates of various health or environmental programs mention, “fetal loss, prematurity, low birth weight, and congenital malformations” are results of e-waste chemical exposure (Bruné et al., 2013, p. e70).
Following EWG’s statement further, Bridgen, Labunska, Santillo, & Johnston (2008), scientists and researchers for Greenpeace, an environmental organization, reveal that exposure to phthalates during pregnancy was linked to a smaller distance from the anus to the genitals in male children (as stated in Swan et al., 2005). More specifically, DEHP, one of the most widely used phthalates, is a known reproductive toxin. It has the potential of impeding development of the testes (Brigden et al., 2008). Chen et al. (2010), professors with doctorates in health and medicine departments in Ohio and China, call for effective environmental health policies to be put in place by both developing and developed countries to prevent unnecessary exposure to toxins. EWG’s valuable evidence that phthalates lead to destructive reproductive effects, combined with Chen et al.
and Brigden et al.’s research on pregnancy, points to the conclusion that residents in e-waste recycling areas suffer collateral damage from its materials.Although laws and organizations have been created to limit e-waste, the issue still remains. Educating the public could be the key to diminishing e-waste. As a solution to the large amount of electronics thrown away by consumers, manufacturers could extend the life of their devices, proposes Ramzy Kahhat (2009), a specialist in environmental and sustainable engineering at Arizona State University.
Prolonging device life will decrease the amount of devices purchased; thus, lessen the amount of e-waste and its disastrous effects. One drawback for this solution would be that more research would have to be conducted to in order to identify ways to extend electronics’ life. As an incentive for companies to install buy-back or return systems for old electronics, Syed Faraz Ahmed (2016), a financial services specialist, suggests the plan of governments giving some form of tax break or rebate to companies that effectively process old equipment. This solution would not only be economically beneficial to companies, but it would be a quicker way to reduce e-waste, since larger companies are influential on platforms such as social media. Ultimately, it is up to those who are informed of this issue to bring forth a solution for residents and workers in disposal areas to live in peace, with the weight of e-waste lifted off their shoulders.