In 2020, the EPA released the results of its study on municipal solid waste (MSW). Americans had generated around 292 million tons of MSW. Of that amount:

  • 69 million tons was properly recycled.
  • 25 million tons of food and paper waste was composted.
  • 146 million tons went to a landfill.
  • 34 million tons were incinerated.

This accounts for about 4.5 pounds of waste per day, and many recyclables, including e-waste, are improperly disposed of. The sad truth is that e-waste still isn’t fully recycled. In this same report, 99% of lead-acid batteries were recycled properly, but only 38.5% of consumer electronics were and that’s a problem.

Worse, only 59.8% of appliances were recycled. If you think about what these appliances and electronics contain, it’s alarming. In addition to metal, glass, and plastic, items can contain coolants and chemicals that damage the environment. 

Even a lined landfill isn’t guaranteed to last for an infinite number of years. While things have improved a lot, we’re starting to see what happens 50, 75, or even 100 years later in terms of pollution in the soil and groundwater. If people don’t start recycling properly, what happens in another 100 years? That’s something everyone needs to stop and think about.

What Toxins and Heavy Metals Are Found in End-of-Life Electronics?

Any used electronic device has plastic components and there’s usually a glass screen. But, there are also different metals. Aluminum, gold, copper, and silver are some of them. Electronics may also contain:

  • Arsenic: Exposure is linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and skin lesions.
  • Cadmium: Exposure at low levels is linked to kidney disease, weakened bones, and cancer.
  • Chromium: Prolonged exposure is linked to damage in the mucosal membranes of the nose, throat, and lungs.
  • Lead: Exposure slows growth and brain development and can damage the nervous system.
  • Mercury: Exposure is linked to headaches, irritability, exhaustion, breathing difficulties, and weight loss.
  • Nickel: Low-level exposure may irritate the skin, but repeated exposure can cause kidney, lung, and stomach damage. 

Each of these is hazardous to people and animals. If they leach into groundwater, animals and plants may ingest or absorb them and end up sick or dying. People, especially children and the elderly, are also in danger if they breathe in contaminated soil or drink contaminated water.

 Explore These Case Studies Showing the Necessity of Proper Handling of Waste

When e-waste and other MSW are not disposed of in a safe measure, it causes tremendous issues to people’s health. Here are a few examples of lessons learned from improper handling of waste throughout history.

 The Love Canal

Have you ever heard of the Love Canal? It was meant to be a dream housing community on a small piece of land near the U.S. side of Niagara Falls. The goal was to build a canal between the upper and lower portions of the Niagara River and generate the electricity needed to power this community. 

However, plans fell through and the canal was converted to a municipal and industrial dumpsite. In the 1950s, that dumpsite was covered with earth and sold to the city for the development of homes and a school. Twenty years later, the drum containers buried deep within that old canal started to rot and leach the chemicals into the groundwater and soil. Puddles of the chemicals came to the surface.

 Birth defects, miscarriages, high white-blood-cell counts, and even children suffering burns from exposure gained national attention. The entire community had to be evacuated starting with pregnant women and babies. At the time, people knew that the land had been a former dumpsite, but they had no idea of the dangers. It was a tragic lesson learned, but it was just the start as there were over 100 more dumpsites around the U.S. that would need addressing to prevent the same catastrophe.

EPA Superfund Sites

In all, the EPA’s Superfund Sites list has 1,898 entries across the U.S. These are all areas of land that were former dump sites or are highly polluted by waste and are believed to pose hazards to human health and wellness. Some of the entries are industrial sites and others are former landfills.

One Superfund Site is the 6,368-acre Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. The base’s landfills, training areas, radioactive burial sites, and solvent spills contaminated the area’s groundwater, and that contaminated groundwater was making it to off-site wells. Affected households had to have water treatment systems installed while VOCs, PFAS, and other contaminants were cleaned up and monitored. 

A California Auto Battery Recycling Plant

California’s largest environmental cleanup project is happening in Vernon, where a lead-acid battery recycling plant operated for over 30 years. At that time, lead, arsenic, and carcinogens were released into the air. Over 250,000 area residents were exposed to those toxins until the plant shut down in 2015.

Lead and arsenic were found in soil samples in Boyle Heights, Commerce, East L.A., Huntington Park, and Maywood. Lead was found in the teeth of many area children.  As of 2023, reports are that the cleanup is expected to cost $750 million, and upwards of 10,000 properties are impacted. 

The importance of filtration and proper processing techniques is essential for keeping an e-waste processing plant. Plants with specific certifications, such as e-Stewards and R2, show a key focus on keeping the environment and people safe.

How Do You Know When Your Recycler Protects the Environment? 

Before partnering with any e-recycler, you want to make sure you’re following your local laws. A business has to also protect a client’s, patient’s, or employer’s personal information by making sure data is destroyed. You can’t just do a factory reset and sell your used items online. A factory reset isn’t enough.

Ask what certifications the company holds. Here are the options and what they mean to you.

  • AICPA SOC 2 Type II: Certification that focuses on practices and procedures related to security and data protection during e-waste recycling.
  • e-Stewards: A standard that sets the stage for e-waste recyclers to ensure the best recycling practices to protect the environment from toxic materials like heavy metals, carcinogens, etc.
  • ISO: Several different ISO certifications exist, and each one does different things. For E-recycling and ITAD services, you want to look for three certificates that focus on measures that protect the workers’ safety and safe work environments. Look for ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and ISO 45001.
  • NAID: Certification that proves an e-recycler and its workers follow data protection laws and regulations.
  • R2: A standard providing an e-waste recycler handles and processes all end-of-life electronics and devices with a focus on the safety of the environment and human health and wellness. It also assures that any vendors a company works with also follow the same rules.

ERI holds each of these certifications. We’re also a Microsoft Registered Refurbisher and work with companies like Best Buy and Staples to collect and process e-waste in environmentally responsible, ethical ways. Reach us online or by phone to learn more about our ITAD and e-waste processes that protect the impact of recycling processes on the environment.