The 21st century has seen more technological advancement than has ever happened before. Latest electrical gadgets are hitting the markets every day, and all these are extensively used by the mankind. Computers, cell phones, televisions, music systems, printers, fax machines, etc. all these have become easily available and feasible to buy, and each of these devices has become an integral part of our functioning lives. People’s lifestyles have changed radically, and technology has made our lives way more convenient and easy. But these electrical products also have a downside that is quite harrowing.
When the life of an electrical item comes to an end, and it gets discarded, we call it as electronic waste or e-waste. This e-waste needs to be handled properly or else it can be extremely hazardous for the mankind as well as for the environment. Every year almost 45 million metric tonnes of e-waste is produced all around the globe. Last year this figure went up to 54 million tonnes (49 million metric tonnes). And a recent study has predicted that by the year 2017 we will have enough e-waste weighing 200 times New York’s Empire State Building or 11 times the Great Pyramid of Gaza. This e-waste being produced every day needs to be managed properly otherwise all our ecosystems come at a risk.
Following are a few harmful effects caused by e-waste:
It contaminates land and ground water
Irresponsible dumping of discarded television sets, computers, refrigerators and other electrical components contaminates our land. When these discarded items are disposed of in the landfills, they affect both the soil and the ground water. The toxins present in the electrical gadgets largely contaminate ground water that also becomes a reason for water shortage problems in some regions all over the world. Electrical components contain elements like mercury and lead which can be very harmful to the environment. When electronic devices are landfilled, especially Cadmium containing plastics and cathode ray tubes (used in TV’s, computers, video cameras, etc.) heavy metals like Cadmium leaches into soil and ground water. Lead and Mercury, certain semi-metals and other dangerous chemical compounds too in the similar way get mixed in the ground water and can enter our water supplies. Upon consumption, these toxic substances become hazardous to human health and can cause potential health risks. Melting of components like computer chips causes acidification of soil that is another serious environmental concern and needs to be stressed upon. All the elements released from the electronic waste may not be typically dangerous for humans in small doses, but if an excess of these is taken up by our body, then bio-accumulation occurs. Bio-accumulation is when the toxin levels in our body shoot up at a faster rate than the rate at which our body can get rid of these. Under such a condition these toxins can lead to fatal health issues like cancer, damaged organs and more.
It contaminates the air
E-waste also pollutes the air we breathe in. De-soldering of computer components or removal of them from the circuits releases some toxins in the air. When the metal chips are burnt and bathed in acids, vapors and toxins are emitted in the air. Also open burning of computer wires releases hydrocarbons into the air. These hydrocarbons pose health risks to all the organisms who breathe in that air and put us all in extreme danger.
Here are few substances commonly found in e-waste and what effect they have on our health:-
Cadmium– Cadmium is one of the most toxic products we can be exposed to. It is toxic to kidney and troubles our body’s ability to metabolize Calcium. If our body isn’t able to metabolize Calcium, then one experiences severe pain in bones while they become weak and fragile.
Arsenic– this is a carcinogenic element that can disrupt cell communication in our body. Chronic exposure to Arsenic can also result in cardiovascular diseases and other serious ailments like diabetes and cancer.
Chromium– like Arsenic, Chromium is also potentially carcinogenic. Exposure to it can cause rashes and irritation on the skin.
Lead– this is one of the most dangerous elements that we can absorb from improper disposal of e-waste. Lead poisoning in our body can impair our cognitive and verbal activity and lead exposure can also lead to conditions like coma, paralysis and even death.
Knowing that e-waste has such harsh and life threatening side effects, proper management of e-waste has become a global issue, and we need to find immediate and effective solutions to this. It is estimated that about 75% of the total e-waste keeps lying in our houses, offices, warehouses and at other such places because we are too uncertain regarding how to dispose of it. Often this waste gets mixed with other household garbage and is taken to the landfills. But here are a few actions that can be taken to responsibly manage the e-waste and reduce the environmental and health threats caused by it.
Reducing the e-waste and reusing/recycling the electronic items
This is one of the most sensible things to do. By reducing the amount of e-waste, we are producing every day we can also reduce the threat posed by the waste. A large number of companies have started accepting old gadgets at the time of purchasing of a new one. If you return your old mobile phone to an electronic showroom while replacing your handset, then they can safely remove the valuable components from the otherwise useless gadget and those components can be reused in the manufacturing of newer products. This will ensure that your old gadget doesn’t land in the dustbin and end up in a landfill in the immensely unhealthy situation. Recycling of other electrical devices will also help in reducing the e-waste discarded by us on a regular basis. Many companies have installed efficient recycling plants that use the old and used up devices to recover valuable components from them. Doing this eliminates waste disposal cost, raw material costs and helps to preserve the environment.
Introducing Inventory management in the manufacturing process
Inventory management implies that there shall be a control over which materials are used for manufacturing of a particular electronic item and in what amount are those materials used. During the manufacturing process, all the components shall be approved before being used, and their potential hazards also need to be considered upon beforehand. It should also be checked whether some alternate materials can be used that are non-hazardous to the environment but a correct replacement to the hazardous components.
Volume reduction and segregation of the waste
The segregation of waste and volume reduction can help big time in dealing the problem of e-waste. Firstly all the hazardous and the non-hazardous portions of waste shall be separated from each other so that both can be handled in different and more appropriate manners. Among these two categories of waste too, different metals can be segregated from each other. This can be done in some techniques like gravity separation, vacuum filtration, freeze vaporization, etc.
Designing Greener products
The use of hazardous substances cannot be completely eliminated, but we can rethink our product designs to look for such designs that use the lesser amount of harmful substances. One such example is the introduction of slimmer and lighter television sets and computer screens. These products are more sustainable than their bulkier counterparts and generate much less electronic waste.
Enactment of environment-friendly laws
Necessary and stricter laws need to be formed and enacted that are in favor with the environment and can help in getting rid of all the e-waste sensibly. Many countries have made such laws that restrict the e-waste from going into landfills. Or such landfills must be made which are well equipped with handling the e-waste. This will ensure the safety of the workers present in the landfill and also the safety of the whole mankind and our environment.