26 July 2006

Are you an e-waster?

Traded in your cell phone for a new model recently? Starting to worry that your PC’s nearly three years old? If the answer’s Yes, then chances are you’re guilty of e-wasting.

Traded in your cell phone for a new model recently? Starting to worry that your PC’s nearly three years old? If the answer’s Yes, then chances are you’re guilty of e-wasting.

What is e-waste?
The ‘E’ in e-waste stands for electronic, so that includes old computers, cell phones, TVs, radios and a vast pile of other discarded electronic equipment. And, given that this technology gets upgraded so quickly, and that the initial cost of many electronic devices in fact decreases with time, we’re buying more of the stuff and chucking it more rapidly. Which suits the manufacturers just fine, as their advertising campaigns attest.

How e-waste affects our health
A piece of cable reclining on the scrap-heap might seem harmless, but in fact there are some rather convincing arguments to class it as ‘hazardous waste’. This is because electronic equipment contains a nasty assortment of toxic substances, which, as it breaks down, can enter the environment and our bodies.

To name just a few examples*:

Lead. When lead dust gets swallowed or inhaled, it has pretty much a total onslaught on the body: brain damage, developmental and behavioral problems, anemia, liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, loss of co-ordination, reproductive problems. It’s especially dangerous for small children and pregnant women. And it’s commonly used in electronic equipment e.g. in solder, batteries, cable sheathing, TV cathode-ray tubes and monitors, circuit boards.

Mercury. Another heavy metal found in e.g. batteries, fluorescent lamps, circuit breakers, thermostats. Can cause brain and liver damage if swallowed or inhaled.

PVC (Polyvinyl chloride). A ubiquitous plastic, in appliance housing and loads of other everyday stuff. PVC contains chlorine. Chlorine plus heat equals hydrogen chloride gas. Hydrogen chloride plus water equals hydrochloric acid: if inhaled, bad news for the respiratory system.

Then there’s also cadmium, chromium, barium, arsenic, selenium, beryllium, dioxins, furans, flame retardants, PCBs… which we will not go into further here, except to say: do they sound like things you want in your body?

These substances don’t pose too much of a problem in the appliances while we’re using them, but they can when we throw them away.

Filling land
The worst thing to do with that old VCR is to just dump it – in the bin or elsewhere, because then it’ll end up in a landfill. Landfill: such an appropriate word: they’re rapidly filling up, and they use up precious land. But quite apart from that, landfills leak (or ‘leach’) their toxic contents, which can then end up in groundwater. Older, unlined landfills leak more, but even the best lined landfills do leak eventually. Some toxins can also ‘gas off’ from landfills.

Up in (toxic) smoke
Another undesirable fate for old electronic equipment is getting burned – a common way people get rid of various kinds of rubbish. This practice is particularly polluting if it’s an open back-yard fire. Incineration in a plant is somewhat better, but still not great. The trouble with burning things is that a lot of toxins that were quietly minding their own business at room temperature get released into the atmosphere when heat is applied.

Better options
That well-worn environmental chant is just as applicable to e-waste as to glass, paper and plastic: Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. The '3Rs' won’t rid us of e-waste altogether, but it takes much longer for it to reach those over-stuffed landfills, and there’s a lot less of it once it gets there. So…

Reduce. In other words: don’t get duped by the cellphone companies telling you it’s hip to be increasingly, and absurdly, small. Carry that brick with pride. And just remember who’s benefiting most from your feeling an overwhelming need to get a spanking new laptop.

Reuse. If you can’t resist the inexorable pull of status and consumerism, and you simply must upgrade or die a ghastly social death, then at least consider that someone else might have a use for your old model, however untrendy. And no, putting your hulking old desktop computer on the pavement in the rain is not a constructive way to support computer literacy. The less well-funded schools and organizations always need computers and sometimes other electronic equipment, but you’ve got to make sure it actually gets to them.

Another important criterion for hand-me-down electronic equipment is that it must still function - otherwise you’re just making your e-waste someone else’s problem. Keep in mind that getting broken equipment fixed is another form of re-use.

Recycle. Recycling of e-waste is a lot better than dumping or incinerating, but it has its own problems. Because it contains a lot of different materials, recycling e-waste is tricky. And the recycling process itself releases toxins.

So looking for a way to re-use is best; second best option is recycling.

Find out about companies and organizations that re-deploy and recycle e-waste in your area. If you don’t have a clue where to start, then contact the local branch of the company that sold you the gadget in the first place, and demand to know what you’re supposed to do with the model they’ve deemed out-dated so quickly. Some companies – Dell, for example – are actively trying to boost their image by encouraging such actions.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, Enviro Health Expert, Health24, July 2006
Ask me about e-waste facilities in your area

*Basel Action Network. The Digital Dump. 2005.


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