Out of sight is not out of mind
Well, it’s the holiday season! If this holiday season follows the usual gift-giving trends, there will be a lot of things bought and given (or kept, for those who love to spoil themselves a little). In fact, Forrester Research thinks we’re going to set a record just for online purchases. It’d be hard to see how this won’t happen.
BCC Research found that, in 2012, people bought:
- 238.5 million TVs;
- 444.4 million tablet PCs; and
- 1.75 BILLION cell phones
Now, all that activity drives the economy – that should be a good thing (it also makes our inner tech geek weep for joy!). There is a very serious, practical problem in all this, though. Most of us throw away these electronic devices within three years of purchase (or received, for those lucky enough to get them as gifts!). That figure should give us reason to fear, to be honest.
In fact, the United Nations has done some pretty hard math to look at this problem, and they project a giant 33 % increase in e-waste between 2012 and 2017. More concretely, that’s 65.4 million TONS of waste. For comparison, that’s the weight of about 740 million Canadians (for those keeping score, that'd be about 22 times the size of our current population).
You can probably see that dealing with e-waste is one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. Let’s take a quick step back first, though.
What is e-waste?
Well, we should know that about 80% of electronic devices are not properly disposed of. This is a worldwide problem. When we toss them out, they’re either sent to the landfill, or worse still, sent to poor countries for cheap processing. Of course, this isn’t regular garbage – the chemical makeup is different and needs special precautions and procedures for cleanup. People in developing nations are exposed to some truly dangerous materials when they’re handling e-waste.
You see, electronics contain metals (e.g., silver, gold, palladium, etc.) which can be recovered for resale (getting this material back would also cut down on mining pressures). The problem here is that, to get at those precious metals, you’d also have to manage the dangerous elements in the devices. These include:
- Lead (a carcinogen!);
- Mercury (a carcinogen!);
- Cadmium (a carcinogen!);
- Chrome; and
- ARSENIC (a very potent poison!)
It’s not a matter of simply avoiding touching these elements. These toxins are launched everywhere when not handled correctly. They’re all obviously safely contained when they’re part of your phone and computer, but the second the device casings are broken in unmonitored circumstances (i.e., in garbage dumps and landfills), they become a hazard to life and limb.
What is the full impact on the environment?
I wasn’t kidding before about toxins getting everywhere. When old electronics aren’t taken apart correctly, the poisonous components get into:
They wreck ecosystems, kill animals and fauna, and, worst of all (from a human standpoint), they get into our food. That’s the long term. What about more immediate consequences?
What is the human cost of e-waste?
As I’d mentioned before, a lot of the e-waste is shipped to developing countries with lower environmental regulations. Much of this activity is illegal, and done with no regard to human safety. It creates foreign jobs at a terrible price to our fellow man.
Workers who process e-waste in China, India, and Ghana are especially underprotected. They’re in direct contact with the substances I mentioned above, often with little to no protective gear. It’s a direct attack on their nervous and respiratory systems, blood, reproductive (and other) organs, and even their bones. The saddest part is, there are many children who work in this "field".
All of this really should move people to encourage accountability on the part of both consumers and manufacturers.
What can you do?
Many countries have passed (or considered) new laws designed to hold electronics manufacturers responsible for end-of-life recycling (and to make it illegal to export e-waste). For example, the European Union launched the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. China and Japan have similar initiatives. E-waste has gotten to be a big enough problem that nations are beginning to really encourage accountability among users.
We can all do our part to improve e-waste management though – we shouldn’t wait for the law to compel us. You (and we) can make a difference, right now. Check out our earlier blog to see where to go to recycle your old devices. And if you absolutely must dispose of electronics, then please, do it safely!
We’re Cimpl, and we’re technology leaders – we’re the biggest IT and telecom expense management company in Canada for that reason. Being a leader also means that we understand the importance of taking care of our community and environment. That’s why we give back to the community every chance we get. We can’t do this alone though. So, this holiday season, we invite you to join us in making the environment a safer place to live for everyone!
Season’s greetings and happy holidays from Cimpl!