E-Waste: A Growing Problem

May 7th, 2012 | By | Category: Environmental Management

My cell phone is 5 years old. It has a tiny screen, an awkward keyboard, and no applications at all, but I stubbornly refuse to trade it in for a new one. It still functions, and for the work I do, it’s really all I need.  Also, I know that if I exchange it, my old phone will become electronic waste (e-waste).

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2009 more than 2.37 million tons of e-waste was generated in the United States alone. That’s about four times the weight of the entire human population. E-waste includes televisions, computers, printers, phones, and other electronics that have outlived their useful lives. It can be almost anything plugged into a wall, and in our increasingly digital society, it is a significant environmental problem.


Why Is E-Waste a Growing Problem?

The most urgent issue today is that approximately 80 percent of unwanted electronics are improperly disposed of.  E-waste is either discarded or exported to emerging nations, where open-air burning and acid baths are used to reclaim precious metals and other elements.  According to a 2010 U. S. Congressional Research Service report, the lack of environmental controls in these nations has resulted in elevated lead levels in children and in heavy metal contamination of soil and water.

The situation is exacerbated by the rapid turnover of electronic devices. Because of the fast pace at which technology is evolving, most electronics have only a 2- to 3- year useful life. Apple sells more than 300,000 new phones every day. In this same time frame, more than 150,000 new Blackberries are sold and 700,000 new Android phones are activated.  That’s 1.15 million new phones each and every day. Most of the phones that are replaced by these new devices end up in a drawer or in municipal landfills. Today’s paradigm is one of disposable electronics, and as a result we now stand at the forefront of a growing environmental catastrophe.


A Lifecycle Approach

In an effort to solve the most pressing problem of e-waste disposal, many countries are enacting laws designed to hold manufacturers accountable for end-of-life electronics. In the United States, 36 states have proposed or implemented “take back” laws that are similar to the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which makes manufacturers either financially or physically responsible for e-waste. In addition, new certification standards such as e-Stewards and R2 provide guidance for responsible e-waste disposal to the burgeoning electronics recycling industry.

Beyond the immediate solution, though, is a more holistic approach that considers the environmental implications of electronics design, operation, and obsolescence. The U.S. Interagency Task Force referred to this approach as “electronics stewardship” in their 2011 product lifecycle strategy document. The strategy set forth a series of initiatives intended to “prevent environmental harm, conserve valuable resources, save money, create jobs, and invest in our economic development.”

In designing this strategy, the task force chose to leverage the government’s purchasing power as the largest U.S. consumer to build a sustainable approach to electronics stewardship. The strategy establishes a series of initiatives that, among other things, promotes design innovation of “greener” (multipurpose, reusable, and less toxic) electronics, requires manufacturer responsibility for e-waste disposal, and extends the lifecycle of all federally purchased electronics by encouraging interagency re-use.


Consumer Responsibility

The U.S. government is acting as a responsible consumer, but are the rest of us following suit? Today, there is little focus on consumer responsibility for e-waste beyond encouraging recycling and awareness of human rights issues. We are part of the problem, so shouldn’t we also be part of the solution?  Consumers have the ability to “vote with their wallet” and encourage more responsible behavior. Wal-Mart’s transformational journey toward sustainability is just one example of a positive response to consumer pressure.  We can solve this environmental crisis by pressuring electronics manufacturers to produce less-toxic, longer-life products.  It sounds simple, but the reality is that it’s difficult to ignore the siren’s call of new technology.

Microsoft isn’t waiting for consumers to determine the future of electronics. The company has created a Vision of 2020 that neutralizes the appeal of physical devices, relegating them to the background.  In doing so, Microsoft has created a future where very little e-waste is generated because the devices serve simply to facilitate our engagement in the world around us. It’s an inspiring vision. Until it comes to fruition, I’ll hold on to my Blackberry and hope we get there in time.


About the Author

Maureen O’Donnell is a sustainability professional in the aerospace and defense industry. She has more than fifteen years of IT experience, including nine years in strategic and emerging technology planning. Over the past six years, Maureen has been working across her company to develop and implement Green IT and sustainable business strategies.


Other EHS Journal Articles by Maureen O’Donnell


Photograph: Abstract by Ilco, Izmir, Turkey.

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3 Comments to “E-Waste: A Growing Problem”

  1. […] E-Waste: A Growing Problem by Maureen O’Donnell […]

  2. It may be of interest to know that Australia’s Product Stewardship Act 2011 came into effect on 8 August 2011 and seeks to address the environmental, health and safety impacts of products. The implementation of the Act will help reduce hazardous substances in products and in waste, avoid and reduce waste, and increase recycling and resource recovery. The Product Stewardship (Televisions and Computers) Regulations 2011 came into effect on 8 November 2011 and support a co-regulatory recycling scheme for televisions, computers, printers and computer products. The Regulations aim to increase the recycling of covered products to 80 per cent in 2021-22. Further information can be found at http://www.environment.gov.au/settlements/waste/ewaste/publications/pubs/fs-regulations.pdf

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