Electronic waste, also called e-waste, has become an issue of serious concern to environmentalists as a growing number of electronic items are discarded in landfills every year. Many consumers are not aware that electronics like computers and cell phones actually contain toxins that can leach out into the soil and damage the environment. The problem is further compounded by the fact that many of the elements used in the construction of consumer electronics are quite valuable, leading companies to attempt to recover them from abandoned electronics, and discard unwanted parts in a manner which is unsafe.
Several nations have enacted laws about e-waste to try and keep it out of landfills, or in landfills which are equipped to handle toxic materials. The heavy metals in e-waste such as lead, cadmium, and mercury pose serious environmental and health risks. While many consumers are trained to think of things like cathode ray tubes as dangerous articles that require special disposal, most do not connect cell phones, for example, with beryllium, a toxic heavy metal which can cause severe damage to the lungs. In addition to the toxins it contains, e-waste also takes a very long time to biodegrade, which means that it will be taking up landfill space for centuries.
The question of what to do with e-waste is a serious one. In the first world, many companies have begun to take steps to reduce the amount of e-waste they create. Companies which manufacture electronics are starting to take items back when they have outlived their usefulness so that usable elements like copper can be safely removed and the rest of the electronics can be safely disposed of. However, a large portion of unwanted electronics in the first world are being shipped to the Third World.
Sometimes this e-waste is shipped under the guise of humanitarian reasons, arguing that old technology can still help bridge the gap between first and third world. Slow laptops which are not wanted in the United States, for example, might make a big difference to someone living in Africa. However, much of this equipment actually arrives in an unusable and broken state, and people desperate for money try to harvest usable materials such as valuable metals from donated equipment. Unfortunately, most of these individuals lack training in how to handle the dangerous materials used in electronics manufacture, and expose themselves and their communities to toxic chemicals and metals.
In other cases, genuine e-waste is sent to third world countries, by the shipping container load. Many companies which claim to be “recycling” e-waste are actually sending the pollution to other countries. Piles of unwanted consumer electronics accumulate by the side of the road and in third world landfills, leaching toxins into the soil and groundwater which cause crop deficiencies, birth defects, and serious illnesses. A handful of environmentally responsible companies have begun to speak out against this practice, and are taking action to dispose of e-waste safely, assisted by governments, which have started demanding that e-waste processing fees accompany the sale of new consumer electronics.