The Dirty Secret behind the Age of Technology: E-Waste
You took a selfie. Click. Upload. Post. Familiar? Of course! This is only one way of how we use technology. Technology makes our lives easier more than ever, and this is a common knowledge one that is not difficult to understand. For instance, technology makes our communication drastically change from how it used to be. We have seen it changed from handwritten letters that took too long to reach our loved ones to a one-click-away chat. Technology does not only play its part in communication but also almost any field such as education and the beauty and wellness industry. And who would not love the convenience it brings?
Technology in the 21st century
In this pandemic, we have seen how technology plays a major role in our day to day life. Almost in any aspect, technology becomes one of the driving tools. We have seen how technology is used to facilitate learning and other services. There is no question to it of how it helps us not just this time but even before.
Given this, let us take a look at how technology would look like in the 21st century.
The innovation in electronic technology will likely put some materials out of place. According to ThoughtCo, ” The 21st century may be remembered as the turning point in which digital technology started to make print materials such as photographs and paper obsolete”. This may be not happening during this time however some changes such as e-books instead of printed books are taking place.
Some of these electronic technologies that most likely will expand to the 21st century are the following:
3-D printing is being used in the production of some materials such as lower-cost car parts and construction materials. This is also being considered for artificial organs (Sauter & Young, 2020).
E-cigarette becomes a new trend for young people as an alternative to traditional cigarettes. An E-cigarette also comes with different flavors such as strawberry (Sauter & Young, 2020).
If you are familiar with Pokemon go or Snapchat filters, then you probably experience this augmented reality. Augmented reality is a digital graphic overlaid onto live footage to relay information. This technology is a highly used tool in manufacturing, health care, travel fashion, and education (Sauter & Young, 2020).
This is just a tip of what E-tech would look like in the years to come. Because it could as far as your imagination could go.
In the 21st century, biotechnology would take a huge leap too. Although it has been developing since the 90s, there would be great innovation that would turn everything into a new range of perspectives. To give you a glimpse of what this Biotech looks like in the 21st century, you can take note of these inventions that you already know today:
Birth control patch
Talking about women empowerment and how women would like to take their lives on is one of the pressing issues that almost everyone in the world. Thus, this birth control patch would become a part of the life of some women. This patch is made easier for women to avoid unexpected pregnancy. This patch contains the same estrogen and progesterone hormones which can be found in birth control pills (Sauter & Young, 2020)
Modern artificial pancreas
Since diabetes is associated with the pancreas [pancreas is the one responsible for insulin production], it is no wonder that the modern artificial pancreas is in the loop of the medical field. It is also known as a closed-loop insulin delivery system. It monitors blood, glucose levels, calculates insulin’s amount, and automatically delivers a small pump. This is proven effective as patients sustain their ideal glucose levels (Sauter & Young, 2020)
If you think that only photos and written pieces would be up for editing, then there is something that you have to know. In the 21st century, gene editing will be more advance. In 2012, researchers discovered that bacterial immune systems are known as clustered regularly interspaces short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) could be used as a gene-editing tool to make specific changes to organisms’ DNA. This can be used to control the spread of diseases such as Malaria, however, there is also a raising question about ethical practice when it comes to human (Sauter & Young, 2020).
The innovation in biotechnology is continuously unfolding and its application would exist in most parts of areas of activity in the next quarter-century ( Miller, Michalki and Stevens, 1998), and sure a day to day activities are with no exception to it.
Information technology would be a new global trend. The massive engagement of people to social media is taking shape in almost all aspects from personal to public as well as from social to political.
According to Pottsgrove School District, “People in the 21st century live in a technology and media-suffused environment, marked by access to an abundance of information, rapid changes in technology tools, and the ability to collaborate and make individual contributions on an unprecedented scales”. Thus, the massive expansion of information not just in the west but also in the east would gear toward a global society.
Moreover, as ACM says, “The information technology umbrella can be quite large, covering many fields. IT performs a variety of duties that range from installing applications to designing complex computer networks and information databases… data management, networking, and engineering”, is quite evident even before and to the 21st-century technological advancement.
What is E-waste?
It was mentioned above that electronic technology will continue to increase. As it goes on, the waste it could produce will also do the same. This waste is called “E-waste”.
So, what is E-waste? How different this waste is from waste such as food scraps? And can we produce this at home?
According to CalRecycle, “E-waste is a popular, informal name of electronic products nearing the end of their useful life. Computers, televisions, VCRs stereos, copiers, and fax machine are common electronic products”. Another definition of E-waste from sustainability.vic.gov.au, “E-waste refers to any item with a plug, battery or cord that is no longer working”. E-waste is something that you can also see in every household there is.
Moreover, the stepinitiative.org further defined E-waste as the term used to cover all electronic items discarded by their owners. And it is not just discarded items but also items that have no longer value to their owner in which the owner is no longer satisfied with their original purpose as stated in Britannica.com.
The ewaste1.com further elaborates that E-waste is also electronic products that unwanted and non-working to their users. While the recyclecoach.com refers to E-waste as outdated electronic equipment. And this makes E-waste the fastest growing waste stream in the world (World Economic Forum, 2019).
E-waste: the fastest growing waste
Annually, Phones, radios, toys, laptops, or anything that has a battery supply contribute to the mounting growth of E-waste. And the amount of the world’s consumption on electric and electronic equipment grows by 2.5 million tonnes yearly (Vanessa Forti, 2020).
According to United Nations University, “In 2016 the world generated e-waste — everything from end-of-life refrigerators and television sets to solar panels, mobile phones, and computers — equal in weight to almost nine Great Pyramids of Giza, 4,500 Eiffel Towers, or 1.23 million fully loaded 18-wheel 40-ton trucks, enough to form a line 28,160 km long, the distance from New York to Bangkok and back”. In the same report, it showed that the top 3 electrical and electronic equipment or EEE are as follows:
- Small equipment (i.e., vacuum cleaners, microwaves, ventilation equipment, toasters, electric kettles, electric shavers, scales, calculators, radio sets, video cameras, electrical and electronic toys, small electrical and electronic tools, small medical devices, small monitoring and control instruments). In 2016: 16.8 Mt generated, with an annual growth rate of 4 % per year to 2020
- Large equipment (i.e., washing machines, clothes dryers, dish-washing machines, electric stoves, large printing machines, copying equipment, photovoltaic panels). In 2016: 9.2 Mt generated, wit.
- Temperature exchange equipment (i.e., refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, heat pumps). In 2016: 7.6 Mt generated, with an annual growth of 6 % per year to 2020.
This is a huge number and a great amount of waste if we only think of, the fact that this amount was recorded in 2016, we also have to expect that the number would increase. In fact, in 2019, there are 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste that had been generated globally. It is approximately 7.3 kilograms that each person can produce.
And it is equal to 350 cruise ships in weight. Asia produced the biggest of about 24.9 million tonnes, followed by the Americas of 13.1 million tonnes, and Europe of 12 million tonnes while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 and 0.7 million tonnes respectively (Vanessa Forti, 2020).
Vanessa Forti also added that by 2030, the global E-waste will be about 74.7 million tonnes. This is made possible by people’s consumptions of electronic products that have a shorter life span and fewer choices to repair, a clear manifestation of why E-waste becomes the fastest growing waste stream.
This problem on a shorter life span has been discussed in the article “Electronic Waste: A Growing Concern in Today’s Environment” (Bhutta, Omar and Yang, 2011). It was noted in the said article that E-waste is oftentimes ended in rubbish dumps. It was also cited that the said life span of most electronic devices such as computers and cellphones is less than two years.
Also, the latest report of the United Nations as shown in the BBC News states that by 2030 such number of E-waste would likely to double
The E-waste is continuously increasing up to this time of Covid-19. The Devon Contract Waste, in one of its research, revealed 60% of people decluttered their homes to keep themselves busy during the lockdown. In this decluttering, the unwanted electronic devices that are no longer functional were got discarded.
And although Covid-19 creates a limited movement among people around the world resulting in a decrease of carbon footprints from transportation during the past few months and the work from home scheme, it did not make any difference to reduce the electronic waste that people around the world can produce. Because, as the people started to work and study from home, there is also an increase in purchasing of new gadgets such as laptops, smartphones, and the like due to technological dependency to be able to avoid the spread of Covid-19.
Another scenario that would contribute to the problem of E-waste is the technology itself. The transition of smartphones from 4G to 5G and laptops from the present generation to the new generation to ensure efficiency would lead to another purchasing entry to accumulate electronic devices. The increase of purchase of these devices would, later on, resulted in to increase in discarded electronic devices in the years to come.
Harmful effects of E-waste to health
E-waste is as bad as it sounds. Its effect on human health is bad. As we all know, E-waste contains various chemicals. And these chemicals can result in persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs).
PBTs are a category of compounds that have high resistance to degradation from non-living and living factors ( Blais, J. 2005). The accessscience.com defines PBTs as long-lasting substances that can form gradually in the food chain which can harm health.
Further, the Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy (GLBNS), the strategic framework for actions to reduce or eliminate persistent toxic substances, especially those which bioaccumulate, from the Great Lakes Basin which was developed jointly by Canada and the United States in 1996 and 1997 and was signed April 7, 1997 (USEPA, 2016), provided categories of PBTs. The GLBNS categorizes PBTs into different levels: Level I and Level II (USEPA, 2012).
According to GLBNS, the following are considered in the level I PBTs and their impact on human health:
Mercury can be absorbed by the skin. It can cause acute and chronic poisoning that may result in death. Inorganic Mercury can also result in damage to the excretory, immune, nervous, and respiratory system of a person (Clarkson & Magos, 2006). On the other hand, organic Mercury can also result in the mentioned damages but with higher toxicity because of its higher mobility (Clarkson & Magos, 2006)
Poly chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
PCBs are organic compounds used as a coolant in electrical apparatus (Dreher et al, 2006). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) suggested that PCBs can cause cancer. Also, other effects of PCBs are endocrine disruption and neurotoxicity (Boas et al, 2006).
Furans are colorless with a boiling point of room temperature (Jakubke & Jeschkeit, 1994). According to Canada.ca, “Health effects associated with human exposure to dioxins include skin disorders, such as chloracne. liver problems”.
Benzo (a) pyrene (BaP)
Benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) is defined by PubChem as ortho- and peri-fused polycyclic arene consisting of five fused benzene rings. BaP can be found in car exhaust, smoke from wood fires, tobacco, oil and gas products, charred or grilled foods, and other sources as reported by cancer.gov. The dhss.delaware.gov wrote about BaP there was evidence that showed as causes of skin, lung, and bladder cancer in humans and animals.
According to PubChem, “Hexachlorobenzene is a stable, white, crystalline chlorinated hydrocarbon that emits very toxic fumes of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrochloric acid, and other chlorinated compounds when heated to decomposition.”
Alkyl-lead compounds are man-made compounds. They are used as a fuel additive to reduce “knock” in combustion engines. They also help to lubricate internal engine components (PBT National Action Plan for Alkyl-lead, 2002. According to a study, exposure to alkyl-lead causes serious toxic effects to the nervous system and the potential to cause neurological disorders that can result in memory impairment and shift of moods.
According to Pesticide Safety Education Program or PSEP, “A pesticide is any substance used to control pests. Some are very poisonous, or toxic, and may seriously injure or even kill humans”. Pesticides can affect almost every system of your body such as the reproductive and nervous system.
The effects of the following PBTs are overwhelming which makes you think if the cellphone that you are holding now is slowly poisoning you.
Environmental impact of E-waste
The environmental impact of electric and electronic waste from its production is already degrading. As we all know, the materials used in making the said products are outsource from mining that not only the environment in some cases but also the workers who work in mining areas.
As electric and electronic equipment reach their life span, as usual, they would be discarded. Hence, producing additional waste to the environment. Like any other waste, E-waste has its fair share of negative environmental impact. Just like humans, the environment has also no escape from this hazardous E-waste. So, what are the E-waste’s negative impacts on the environment?
E-waste can cause air pollution. For instance, In Ghana, Africa, to be able to get the alloy and copper, they usually burn the wires. The burning of these materials could release toxins into the air. When these toxins reach the atmosphere, they add up to the green gasses that cause global warming which may result in undesirable climate changes. Also, these toxins can cause acid rain.
Another is land pollution. Since most of the E-waste find their way to the landfill, they can also contaminate the land. For instance, in Ghana, presence of lead levels as high as 18,125 ppm in the soil (Caravans, 2013), whereas, according to atsdr.cdc.gov, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has standard for lead in soil in play areas is 400 ppm and for non-play areas is 1200 ppm. The presence of heavy metal on soil makes it less fertile and can also cause toxicity.
When E-waste is filed up in the landfill for a long time, they produce leach that contains toxins that may reach the groundwater, stream, river, and even ocean. Thus, contributing to water pollution. When water is polluted, the marine animals that inhabit the area would likely die resulting in to damage the ecological balance and biodiversity of the affected area.
These negative environmental effects only show one thing, E-waste is a threat both to humans and the environment.
Can E-waste be recycled?
While it is factual that E-waste can be recycled and reuse, only a few of these are being recycled. The UN study revealed that only 10%- 40% out of 41.8 million tons of e-waste discarded worldwide follows disposals properly.
Also, even some companies proclaiming that they could take care of the E-waste are not doing it properly. In the video entitled, ” The Dark Side of Electronic Waste Recycling” on the Verge Science YouTube channel, It showed how a certain group track down where do the E-waste go when the E-waste breach the facility. In the video, it was apparent that some recycling companies are shipping the E-waste to a developing country such as Ghana. This kind of action is not using the proper recycling process.
In another developing country, the Philippines, Eng. Yusep Abduhasad, an advocate of sustainable energy, highlighted another concern with regards to E-waste. He said that even electronic technology such as solar panels could impose a problem. He added that even if solar panels have a longer life span of 15 to 25 years, they would only end up in the landfill because of the lack of recycling facilities in his country when it comes to E-waste.
Thus, even if there are chances of recycling E-waste, we cannot solely rely on it as of this moment. So, one of the best ways is to understand that “the danger lies in how quickly we discard these items, whether because they’ve stopped working or because we just want something even more efficient and convenient” as what the greencitizen.com puts it.
What can we do to address E-waste?
It may sound clichè, but again, we can always do small things. These small things if done collectively will surely create an impact. So, here are the things that we can do:
Yes, our purchasing power plays a huge role in contributing more E-waste. If it is not necessary to buy a new gadget or device, then perhaps have the choice not to buy. If your gadget has some defects make sure to repair it before tossing it out. Because the waste that we produce today will be coming back to ask for the price through the hazard that it can make to our health and our environment.
Yes, your involvement matters. Your involvement in reducing your E-waste, supporting legislation, and doing community works that seek betterment for the environment will play a great role in preserving this planet for future generations. Your involvement makes you not a steward of change but also a steward of sustainability.
Demanding accountability assures you if a company is doing ethical practice such as how it creates its products or if it is true to its sustainability plan and action. Demanding accountability may also mean asking prominent leaders to take action for climate justice as well as the humanitarian situation of people in places where wastes are their source of income, which is the same source of their death too.
These are just some of the few things that you can do. And there is still a long list that everyone can think of to do about not just E-waste but also other waste that one is capable to produce. After all, a complex problem such as this requires a collective and diverse effort.