E-Waste and the Ecosystem
E-waste and the Ecosystem
If not recycled properly, substances in electronics can enter the air, water or soil through various pathways made available during their disposal. Once in the environment, these substances can ultimately make their way into fish, animals, and humans where they can be harmful.
Frequently, electronics meant to be recycled are disposed of in developing nations. It is estimated that up to 75% of US e-waste is exported. Most recipients are not equipped to handle e-waste safely, efficiently or on a large scale. In the city of Guiyu, known as the e-waste capital of China, 88% of children had symptoms of lead poisoning. Using certified recyclers such as E-steward or R2 can ensure recyclables are handled responsibly and safely.
Many electronics that are not recycled end up in municipal landfills and eventually breakdown over time. Toxic materials may eventually leach to groundwater or enter the atmosphere from landfill emissions; 70% of heavy metals in U.S. landfills result from electronics, which account for only 2% of the waste stream.
Americans discard approximately 400 million electronic products per year. Most are recyclable, but fewer than 20% actually are recycled. Most contain materials that can be toxic to humans and other organisms. Discarded products are sent overseas, land-filled, or incinerated, and ultimately can deposit toxic materials to the soil, water, and air.
Heavy metals and flame retardants exist in electronic equipment. If products are not recycled, these materials may enter water bodies through various pathways (i.e. landfill leachate transports toxins through groundwater and the hydrologic cycle). Toxins can contaminate sediments, the organisms that live there, and fish that feed on those organisms. Sometimes, these chemicals accumulate in organisms at higher concentrations than in the surrounding ecosystem (bioaccumulation), and can be ingested by other organisms, including humans, through the food chain.
Water flows above and below ground, and moves between soil and air through the hydrologic cycle, a natural process that returns toxic materials to land and water. Contaminants not adsorbed to sediments or consumed by aquatic organisms may volatize to the atmosphere. Alternately, contaminants may enter the atmosphere directly through landfill or incinerator emissions, be transported many miles, and then deposited to water bodies and soil through rain.
Toxics from electronics can be easily prevented from entering the ecosystem using combinations of the following electronics best management practices:
- Having a green electronics policy in place
- Having clear procurement specifications to identify desired green product attributes
- Using the EPEAT registration to purchase recycle-friendly electronics or using green electronics language in procurement contracts
- Having trained internal staff to effectively implement green electronics product vetting
- Executing a take back program contract at the time of electronics purchase
- Employing strategies to reduce the purchase of electronics i.e. by increasing the length of the refresh cycle
- Employing strategies to reuse electronics or purchase refurbished electronics
- Recycling electronics through an R2 or E-Steward certified recycler