Throwing something away doesn’t mean it’s gone forever—so where does e-waste really go after you dispose of it? The answer depends on how you dispose of it. Here are some places your e-waste could end up:
Throwing an electronic device in your trash can may be the easiest way to dispose of it, but it’s not doing the environment any favors. It’s estimated that electronic waste represents only 2% of the trash found in U.S. landfills, however it accounts for about 70% of overall toxic waste.
What’s the harm in letting your electronic devices sit in a landfill? Electronic devices typically contain lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, barium, chromium, nickel, and gold, among many other substances. These substances don’t cause us harm when we use our laptops or play on a tablet because they are enclosed inside the device. However, electronic devices usually break or crack as they are being transported to a landfill, which causes these dangerous chemicals to start leaking out into the landfill. These harmful substances will eventually either be released into the atmosphere or absorbed into the ground, where they will contaminate the water supply. Because of this, it’s important to keep electronic waste out of landfills.
Most waste in the U.S. is left in landfills, but a small amount of it is incinerated instead. If you throw your electronic devices in the trash, it’s possible that your waste could be sent to the incinerator instead of the landfill. This may seem like a good alternative to letting your e-waste sit in a landfill, but burning electronic waste is just as dangerous. When electronic devices are burned, harmful metals such as lead and mercury are released into the air. These toxins can eventually become concentrated inside of fish that will later be consumed by the general public.
Electronic waste that contains PVC plastic will release other harmful chemicals, including furans and dioxins, into the atmosphere during incineration. Dioxins are carcinogenic and can disrupt hormones, making them one of the most toxic emissions.
The Basel Convention, an international treaty, prohibits developed countries from exporting electronic waste to developing countries, however this still occurs on a regular basis. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that has not ratified this treaty, and therefore is not obligated to follow its rules.
So, how does e-waste end up in developing countries all around the world? Many electronic recycling companies ship their waste to developing countries so they do not have to pay the costs associated with processing the toxic materials. Recycling firms tend to ship their waste to China or Ghana, even though both of these nations are prohibited from accepting imported electronic waste. Other countries that take in a large amount of electronic waste include Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and Vietnam.
Once electronic waste is shipped to developing countries, it ends up in junkyards and recycling shops. Here, workers break down the electronic waste and resell the parts. The only problem is that these workers in developing countries are rarely given the proper safety gear to protect them from the hazardous chemicals that they are exposed to as they work. One study tracked electronic waste shipped out of the U.S. all the way to Hong Kong, where researchers found workers using power drills to break apart stacks of old printers. The workers were not wearing aprons or facemasks, and as a result, they were exposed to mercury vapor and toner ink, which are both incredibly hazardous.
Because there are also no environmental regulations in developing countries, toxins released from electronic waste can easily pollute the air, water, and soil.
However, not every recycling firm in the U.S. will dispose of electronic waste in this manner. Many electronic recyclers process electronic devices in controlled recycling plants to minimize the negative effects of e-waste on the environment. Some recycling plants use a machine that crushes the electronics and extracts different elements that can be reused or resold. Typically, U.S. recycling plants use workers in an assembly line to take apart electronic waste and sort through the components. These workers are required to wear protective gear that will keep them safe from the hazardous chemicals they may be exposed to as they work. Employees in the assembly line remove hazardous parts of the electronic waste, such as toner ink and batteries, and then send the remaining parts to an electronic shredder, which can process thousands of pounds of electronic waste per hour.
The shredder captures the dust that is released when electronics are broken down and prevents it from being released into the warehouse or the environment. Thus, disposing of your electronics through one of these recycling plants is the best way to protect your community and the environment.
Many people choose to donate electronic devices they no longer want to non-profit organizations within their community. If you do this, your electronic waste will end up in the hands of another person, which is a great way to get more use of an item before disposing of it. Some non-profits accept electronic waste donations so they can provide local schools or community groups with computers and other devices. Donating your electronic waste is a good way to give back to your community, but be sure to remove all of your personal information from the devices before donating them.
ERI is the largest recycler of electronic waste in the world, and is licensed to recycle various electronic devices, including computer monitors, computers, and televisions. When you work with ERI, none of your electronic waste will end up in a landfill or a developing country. For more information on recycling electronics, or to request a quote, contact us today.