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E-Wastefulness: Unsustainable Electronic Waste Policies - Cheyenne Bure
E-Wastefulness: Unsustainable Electronic Waste Policies
How many electronics do you use every day? This includes not only computers and cell phones but vape pens, Christmas lights, batteries, and even the single-use cups found at theme parks (they have microchips in them!). What do you do with these electronics when you can no longer use them? Throw them in your trash or recycle them? While many electronics are recycled, many others are not, due to the lack of regulations, education, and incentives to do so. Despite this, electronics contain substances that are harmful to human health and the environment. Discarded electronics are becoming a large environmental and human health issue the federal and state governments need to address through mechanisms such as incentives, education, and sustainable laws.
Electronic waste or e-waste is unwanted or broken electronics (anything with a battery or cord) that are no longer used and ready for disposal. The world generated 53.6 metric tons (Mt) of e-waste in 2019 and this is projected to grow to 74.7 Mt by 2030 . Electronics are everywhere but what happens to them once we no longer have use for them? Most likely they will go to your local landfill, be formally recycled, or be informally recycled. Of the 53.6 Mt generated in 2019, only 17.4% (9.3 Mt) was formally recycled . Informal recycling is when consumers give their electronics to sham recyclers and they end up being stock piled, sent to an international dump site, or otherwise not properly managed. Unsustainable, unregulated disposal of electronic waste in the U.S. can lead to massive dump sites locally or internationally. The international dump sites in low-income countries have become such an issue that many countries are banning e-waste imports from the United States. We are also the only developed country that does not regulate electronic waste exported to other countries . This means that our electronics are becoming other countries’ health and environmental problem. Electronics that are sent to the landfill just sit there, slowly leaching toxins, taking up valuable landfill space. Others are stock piled, intending to be recycled but aren’t for whatever reason, usually because of a downturn in the fluctuating scrap metal prices. In the US, these stockpiles can be abandoned by the owner and are left for taxpayers to cleanup. In my personal experience, low-income individuals that were collecting these electronics, usually cathode ray tubes (CRT’s), would take them to scrap yards for money. Changes in the economymade it more expensive to dispose of these items, turning a pile of potential income into a mound of debt.
You may not think twice about throwing away your used vape or broken phone, but you should. Some electronic components become dangerous by just throwing them in your household trash. Lithium-ion batteries are a potential fire hazard. You may have even seen it in your local news– someone’s pocket exploding from an overheated vape, a trash truck catching fire, or the fact you can no longer put your external battery pack in your checked bag during your flight. The New York Times reported 6 deaths and 139 injuries from lithium-ion battery fires in New York City this year alone . Long term dangers of improperly disposed electronics are just as dangerous. Humans can be exposed to harmful substances through handling broken electronics, inhalation from burning them or from dumps that leach contaminants into the soil and water supplies. Electronics can contain a variety of toxic materials and precious metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, silver, gold, nickel, copper, mercury, cobalt, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), silica, and flame retardants [5, 6]. Short term exposure to cadmium, for example, can lead to flu like symptoms and long term exposure can lead to kidney, bone, or lung disease. Pregnant mothers are more likely to have still births or premature births. Mothers can passlifelong health challenges onto their children such as behavioral issues, sensory processing, difficulty with language, and increased rates of ADHD . These children will also have greater risk of developing cancer and disease. Unsustainable disposal of e-waste doesn’t only hurt the economy but the health of humans as well.
There is a solution to this very serious problem. Electronics can be refurbished to be resold or recycled, diverting tons of waste from landfills each year. Based on a 2018 study, the United States generated 2.7 million tons of electronics and recycled about 38.5% of used electronics . In the US, we could do much more recycling and reuse of the mineral components. According to a 2001 study by the Global Futures Foundation: “Approximately 70 percent of the heavy metals in municipal solid waste landfills are estimated to come from electronics discards” .Aside from the negative health impacts to humans and the environment, the metals inside electronics are a limited resource. Metals such as gold, silver, and cobalt all must be mined for new devices, adding to the negative environmental and health impacts. However, recycling electronics to extract these metals is actually cheaper than mining them according to a 2018 study by Xianlai Zeng, John A. Mathews, and Jinhui Li . In addition, , the aluminum, glass, and plastic within electronics are all recyclable. With new technology emerging daily, limited landfill space, and the demand for these metals rising, the need to reclaim the materials inside electronics is only increasing.
So, what is the US doing about it? Not much. Currently, the only electronic waste the federal government regulates is CRTs . CRTs are used for glass screen displays and contain high amounts of lead, qualifying themas a hazardous waste. These tubes are primarily used in older TVs and have been phased out for modern flat screen and LCD TVs. With technological advances over the last few decades, CRTs are now a small fraction of our electronic waste, meaning almost all e-waste is unregulated. The federal government needs to catch up on an entire sector of unregulated waste for the sake of our health and the planet’s.
There has been some progress, however.In 2009, President Obama issued Executive Order 13693 to make greenhouse gas emissions reduction a priority and create a sustainable strategy for the federal government. In response, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, with help from the Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration,initiated the National Strategy for Electronic Stewardship (NSES). This strategy is comprised of four goals:
1.) Build Incentives for Design of Greener Electronics, and Enhance Science, Research and Technology Development in the United States
2.) Ensure the Federal Government Leads by Example
3.) Increase Safe and Effective Management and Handling of Used Electronics in the United States
4.) Reduce Harm from US Exports of E-Waste and Improve Safe Handling of Used Electronics in Developing Countries 
The NSES is a great starting point for end-of-life electronics but takes a carrot-based approach with no requirements or mandates. The plan encompasses very important steps in addressing the e-waste problem. Promoting recycling, research, education, nationally and internationally while also “leading by example” are all essential steps in managing end of life electronics. However, the major weakness in this approach is that consumers and businesses are not required to recycle their electronics by law.
In addition to a lack of strong federal action, to date, the majority of the electronic waste issue in the US has been left to individual states to address. There are only 25 states that have some type of legislation regarding electronic waste . Common rules include having manufacturers of certain electronics register with a state agency, requiring manufacturers to have a recycling program in place, regulating recyclers by requiring them to keep detailed records of material recycled, and banning electronics from landfills. Typically, each state has at least one person assigned to be the subject matter expert on e-waste. However, from personal experience as a past subject matter expert for the state of Missouri, this is usually not their sole job. The subject matter expert-government employee usually has many hats to wear and e-waste management is just one. The result is that advocating for stricter laws, managing e-waste dump sites, and public outreach is not their sole priority. With this “leave it to states to decide” approach, e-waste is clearly not being managed properly.
What will fix the e-waste problem? In addition to the carrot-based NSES plan, the federal government must utilize a stick-based approach as well. Laws that ban electronics in landfills nationwide, require manufacturers to create sustainable designs, and regulate business and household electronic wastes will all help raise the rate of recycling. To fully implement this approach, the federal and state governments will need funding from the regulated sector and consumers. No one wants higher taxes or more expensive electronics, but with the right refurbishing and recycling infrastructure, the cost to make them will decrease over time. More laws and oversight of e-waste will also decrease greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and reduce human health problems associated with the exposure to harmful toxins. A healthier planet and people means a decrease in spending to combat climate change and health care overall. The biggest hurdle for e-waste laws will be passing a sustainable, easily adaptable and evolvable legislation that is backed by both political parties and regulated entities. In our fast paced technological world, all states and the federal government need to manage electronic waste with stricter laws to ensure a healthier planet and human population.
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Xianlai Zeng, John A. Mathews, and Jinhui Li
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