Often times, when we think of the improper disposal of E-Waste, we think of plastics and chemicals filling up in landfills, contaminating the soil, etc. However, many garbage centers actually incinerate the garbage to conserve space, and the improper burning of E-Waste can cause air pollution.
Typically, combustion, especially in a garbage dump setting, releases particulates, which can cause respiratory problems. However, particulates released from combustion of E-Waste are “finer” than the usual particulates, making them even more dangerous because they are more easily taken absorbed by the lungs.
These finer particulates are particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children. Inhalation of these particulates by children can cause respiratory problems in the future, and if enough is inhaled, it can lead to Lead Poisoning. It’s also dangerous for pregnant women to inhale these particulates for obvious reasons - they are nurturing an unborn child. Passing on the inhaled particulates can lead to birth defects (often neurological).
Workers that are directly at the waste sites are especially in danger due to direct inhalation of lethal amounts of air pollution. Moreover, as the air pollution accumulates, the health problems presented grow exponentially with each passing generation.
The diagram below (From the study: “A review of the environmental fate and effects of hazardous substances released from electrical and electronic equipments during recycling”) demonstrates visually how air pollution occurs.
Soil & Water Contamination
E-Waste often ends up in landfills. This wouldn’t be a problem if it properly decomposed like regular trash; however, in landfills, a number of heavy metals, organic compounds, etc. are released from their convenient containers. These chemicals are then released into both the nearby soil as well as nearby bodies of water.
While it is possible for these chemicals to end up in sources of soil and water by simply being in landfills, most of the time they contaminate the sorrounding soil and water when they are burned on an open flame, which is a common occurance at regular garbage dumps. The particulates that are released settle into the soil, and depending on the environment, the rate of absorption varies (for instance, high acidity usually means that heavy metals are absorbed faster). Rain then further transports the particulates into streams of water, which then affect all types of living organisms as the toxic chemicals are passed down the food chain.
While this seems like a solely environmental problem, far detached from social issues, the presence of heavy metals and other carcinogenic organic compounds in soil and water has been confirmed by large amounts of evidence to have risen to extraordinary levels in these past years. This means that any food that is grown is also contaminated, and drinking water is as well. Evidence shows that humans are acquiring unusual amounts of heavy metals in our bodies, and it largely appears to be due to excessive amounts of E-Waste.
Toxic substances are not the only things that you are throwing away when you throw away E-Waste. It just so happens that you are throwing away many valuable metals, some of which are simply precious while others are rare earth metals.
Some of these metals, such as copper, act doubly as heavy metals. Copper in particular, which is used in wiring for its conductivity, can have adverse effects on the environment, but it is also one of the most common things to be recycled when E-Waste is recycled due to how useful it is.
These “rare earth metals” are called just that because they are difficult to extract in an efficient way, and the capacity that we find them on the Earth is limited. These metals also have no suitable substitutes, making their retrieval of vital importance.
With these, it’s not a case of whether we’ll have enough since most of them are quite common, it’s whether they can be extracted with reasonable energy input in the future when we need them most. Pretty much all of technology today needs these metals to operate. For instance, Yttrium is necessary for color TV’s, Lanthanum is needed for catalytic converters, etc.
It also doesn’t help that many of these rare earth metals can be toxic to the environment and human health if mined incorrectly (they can end up contaminating nearby water basins and food growth areas).
Due to these problems, it’s our responsibility to salvage as many electronics that we can in order to preserve future resources.