Computers are an essential part of work and modern life. However the manufacturing, use and disposal of computers can damage the environment.
Electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest growing type of waste in the world and is more toxic than normal household rubbish. Computers and other electronic devices can contain toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury. The plastic casing and wiring of computer equipment can also contain hazardous materials, such as brominated flame retardants.
The problem is that landfilling stores this ewaste rather than allowing for recovery and reuse of valuable materials, such as gold, silver, platinum and copper. There’s also a risk that hazardous substances will leach from landfills into surrounding land and waterways, polluting our environment.
When e-waste is burned, dioxins, furans, and other pollutants are released into the air.
If all sources of electronic waste are tallied, it could total 50 million tons a year worldwide, according to the UN Environment Programme.
Toxic e-Waste: Each computer, monitor or cellphone etc contains some or all of the following: lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic Also: plastics including PVC (polyvinyl chloride), beryllium, hexavalent chromium, brominated flame retardants, barium, selenium.
Lead – Accumulates in environment and has high acute, toxic effects on plants, animals and micro-organisms. Damage to nervous system, blood. A neurotoxin. It also harms the kidneys and reproductive system. Even low-level lead exposure can impair a child’s mental development.
Cadmium – Acute and Chronic toxic compound which accumulates in human body, esp. in kidneys.
Mercury – Causes Chronic brain damage. Easily accumulates in living organisms, esp. Fish. Also linked to Kidney damage and harmful to a developing fetus. It can be passed through breast milk.
Arsenic – Various diseases of the skin. Can also cause lung cancer and can often be fatal.
Plastics (PVC) – Various cancers, endocrine system disruption. If burnt, releases highly toxic dioxins.
Beryllium – Human carcinogen – cancer causing. Lung cancer and skin disease.
Hexavalent Chromium – Strong allergic reaction (asthmatic, bronchitis) even in small concentrations.
Brominated flame retardants – Cause Thyroid Damage and harm fetal development.
Barium – Brain swelling, muscle weakness, damage to the heart, liver and spleen.
Selenium – Causes Selenosis, which symptoms are hair loss, nail brittleness and neurological abnormalities.
"What are the possible dangers" Information from Environment Victoria, computer waste (ewaste) in Australia and the case for producer responsibility, June 2005
Here is a presentation we gave early 2010 which is a good summary on e-waste.
The 5 minute video below was put together from 4-8 different documentaries totalling over 80 minutes. We used footage from the following key documentaries:
"eDUMP" the documentary - 20min http://michaelzhao.net
Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia - 23min http://www.ban.org
The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-use and Abuse to Africa - 23min http://www.ban.org
More information below on e-waste
National Geographic Information on electronic waste
CBS News - 60 Minutes follows USA Toxic Waste
Greenpeace information on e-waste
Recycling is Important
In our modern industrial world, recycling has become a global necessity in order to save and reutilise vital natural resources.
Sending e-waste to landfill is also a waste of resources – metals can be recycled indefinitely without degradation. It takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminum, compared with smelting it from ore. In the case of Steel it takes 75% less energy to recycle it. Burying metals is a total waste of resources (Electronic Waste: report – Consumer 471 –July 2007 – consumer.org.nz).
A major problem for us here in New Zealand is that we currently have no way of recyling our redundant, end-of-life computer equipment so we either send it to landfill or "hopefully" we make sure it get's to proper recyclers.
Unfortunately, the recyling industry has it's problems. And it's up to us consumers to start asking for more transparency in what actually happens to our exported e-waste.
Check out some more random e-waste pictures
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