E-Waste: The Growing Concern
Detrimental to our environment, and a growing concern of the 21st century: electronic waste poses threats to the health of individuals, as well as ecosystems around the world, and is an issue that continues to grow at a rapid pace. The way technology is continuously progressing, and the social drivers that continue to create a demand for the next best technology, create problems associated with electronic waste. While these impacts may not be easily seen here in the United States, other countries are suffering the effects of the way technology continues to advance, and the choices that certain institutions make in regard to dealing with electronic waste in an effective manner. Social drivers such as status symbols, trends, obsolescence, and profit driven markets feed into the issue of electronic waste. As a result, these drivers create impacts that increase the amount of harmful chemicals entering the environment, create health problems, and often affect people who are unable to stand up for their social justice rights. While several developed countries have adopted legislation to stop electronic waste from being exported, the United States, one of the main drivers of electronic waste, has yet to acknowledge any form of action decreasing or eliminating the export of electronic waste to developing countries. In order to resolve the issues that are created as a result of electronic waste: social movements, policy, and institutional methods geared towards effective management of such waste can have positive impacts on helping to solve these problems.
There are certain social drivers that greatly impact the growing issue of electronic waste. The reliance on technology to communicate across the globe may create more efficient ways of communication, but the developing market that this relies upon is creating a demand and an increased problem with waste. Electronics are not built to last, and there are more electronic devices than ever before. According to the article Social impact assessment of informal recycling of electronic ICT waste in Pakistan using UNEP SETAC guidelines, “The rapid development in ICT is leading to fast replacement of existing computers and mobile phones with new models. Simultaneously, the technical lifetime and time of use of such devices is decreasing (Zeng et al., 2012). Mobile phones now have an average life span of less than two years in the industrialized world, and computers two to four years (SEPA, 2011). As a consequence, the amounts of electronic waste (e-waste) are increasing rapidly and it is now one of the fastest growing waste streams (SEPA, 2011)” (Umair, Björklund, & Petersen, 2015, par. 2). These social drivers to increase production of electronic products may focus mainly on the fact of effective global communication, but there are several other social drivers that affect the amount of electronic waste that has an impact on the environment and health of individuals.
While one social driver of electronic waste is the reliance on technology for global communication, in the United States, technology often plays a role as a status symbol. People want the next best iPhone, the best entertainment system, and some of the nicest home appliances on the market. This is rooted in the culture of Americans. Buy, buy, and buy. That is what is what is encouraged through advertisements, and even our presidents have recommended that people consume and go out and buy more. However, the United States has yet to develop any policy to effectively manage the growing issue of electronic waste. Louisa Olds explains, “Though precise numbers are unavailable, it is estimated that the United States is a major exporter of e-waste; thus, national legislation should be put in place to regulate such exports in order to prevent toxic dumping. As the European Union already has e- waste legislation in place, the RoHS and WEEE Directives-both of which are currently being revised in order to make them more effective-the United States should learn from Europe’s experience and adopt legislation that reflects these reforms. In particular, the United States should adopt uniform national legislation that reduces the compliance burdens associated with the current state-by-state approach to e-waste regulation in the United States” (Olds, 2012, p. 828-829).
The social drivers associated with electronic waste create detrimental impacts on the environment, as well as the people who deal with the effects. A majority of people who are affected by electronic waste are not the ones who use these products, but rather the people who are in countries where this waste is shipped. The conclusion of the article Potential Environmental and Human Health Impacts of Rechargeable Lithium Batteries in Electronic Waste states that, “Results of this research indicate that rechargeable lithium based batteries associated with portable electronic products are potential sources of hazardous metal pollutants in the environment. These metal pollutants can adversely impact environmental quality and human health, particularly in regions of the world that lack infrastructure for solid waste collection, sorting, and recycling” (Kang, Chen, & Ogunseitan, 2013, p. 5502). Lithium batteries are used in almost all of the electronics that people recharge. This accounts for a large portion of electronics on the market and serves as just one example of the impacts that are the results of what social drivers create. This problem mostly affects developing countries that do not have the adequate infrastructure to deal with electronic waste efficiently and effective. In order to combat the negative effects of electronic waste, developed countries, like the United States, who have adequate infrastructure and technology to deal with electronic waste, need to adopt policies like the UN legislation and stop exporting electronic waste. Since electronic waste is created by the United States, but then dumped on other developing countries; there is a serious issue with justice in this case.
While some countries have made an effort to decrease the amount of electronic waste they export, others have not. This mostly comes down to the global policies, which have not been revised to fit the changes within society. Valerie Brown states that, “When it comes to the regulation of hazardous chemicals, change in any direction tends to proceed at a snail’s pace. The primary law governing chemicals and health, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA),1 has not been revised since it was passed in 1976, due in part to legislative gridlock and lack of consensus among stakeholders” (Brown, 2011, para. 1). The changes to decrease the negative impacts of electronic waste are not the prioritized. People continue to suffer as a result of the choices companies, and on a smaller scale, choices that individual consumers make.
While policy may not be the fastest way to combat the negative effects of electronic waste, technology may show to be more promising. A waste management study shows that there are certain ways to effectively recycle the precious metals found in electronic devices. The study states that, “An integral closed circuit hydrometallurgical process is presented for base metal recovery from electronic waste. The leaching medium consists of a sodium citrate solution, from which base metals are retrieved by direct electrowinning, and the barren solution is recycled back to the leaching stage. This leaching-electrowinning cycle was repeated four times. The redox properties of the fresh citrate solution, as well as the leach liquors, were characterized by cyclic voltammetry to determine adequate conditions for metal reduction, as well as to limit citrate degradation. The leaching efficiency of electronic waste, employing the same solution after four complete cycles was 71, 83 and 94% for copper, iron and lead, respectively, compared to the original leach with fresh citrate solution” (Torres & Lapidus, 2017, para. 1). This is effective in recycling certain precious metals without leaving unstable chemicals behind. Technological advances may serve to be more urgent in combatting the negative effects of electronic waste, but may not be as easy to apply universally like legislative policies could.
In order to combat the negative effects of electronic waste effectively, there should be a combination of both technology and policy. If the United States continues to export the majority of the electronic waste that it produces, then it should be do so in a manner that will not harm individuals in the country that the waste is being exported to, but rather serve as an economic opportunity. In order to do this, technology to effectively manage electronic waste should be available to the country that receives this electronic waste at the expense of the exporting country. If countries are going to continue to export electronic waste, then they should do so in a manner that takes responsibility for this waste and acknowledges the negative effects that electronic waste has if not properly managed.
As far as the social drivers such as the growing market for communication devices and status symbols that electronics now serve, there is not much that can be done. These are forces that are routed in the way that people live. Planned obsolescence will continue to drive the profits of companies, unless there are certain laws or policies that limit such action, although limiting this action may seem like a far stretch and nearly impossible to stop. Certain new technological companies that promote sustainable technology and implement a recycling program for their products may appeal to the green consumer. Yet, the success of this is highly dependent on performance and competition between other companies and corporations that have been in existence, and dominated the electronics market for the last several decades. There is no easy solution to resolving the issues that stem as a result of electronic waste, and with consumerism dominating American culture; there is no easy way to tell if there will be action before certain environmental conditions are irreversible.
While electronic waste poses great threats to the environment, it is the lack of policy and urgency that continues to make this a growing issue. Social drivers such as the need for communication technology, and the way technology serves as a status symbol in the American culture, drive several impacts of electronic waste. These impacts contribute to the declining health of people in developing countries, and contribute to problems involving pollutions within the environment among other issues. While policy and governance may seem to be a slower route to solving issues involving electronic waste, technology has been seen to be effective in certain cases. The introduction of more green electronics companies to the market with methods for implementing their own recycling programs for their products, and environmentally friendly methods may serve as a solution, but the success of these against other companies that have dominated the electronics market do not seem practical. A mixture of policy and technology may serve as the best solution for combatting the negative effects of electronic waste, but introduction of green technology companies may also help to serve as an example for other companies to shift to more green methods and adopt alternative methods in order to appeal more to the consumer. Overall, electronic waste is a complex issue that is not solved by any one solution and has negative effects that should not be treated, but rather solved at the source.


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