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E-Waste: Electronic Waste and Why It’s a Problem

By: Bibiana Egbunike

Have you ever thought about replacing your perfectly functional phone because of that one cool feature in a newer model? Chances are that you have. That thrilling exhilaration of purchasing a new phone can be quite addictive. However, although the purchase may seem harmless, it’s really not.

Friday, October 23rd, 2020 marked the date of Apple’s new iPhone 12 release. Apple has a tradition of releasing new phones almost every year. When these phones are released, thousands – if not millions – rush to upgrade their well-functioning phones. It is clear that these phones rarely differ, maybe only a few features would be included in the newer model, yet we still feel the need to upgrade these phones. The pressure from society to continually update our gadgets drive us to make unnecessary purchases, and in turn, dispose of more gadgets.

When we discard these well-functioning electronic products, this leads to E-waste. E-waste can be defined as electronic products that are no longer wanted or in use and have been disposed of. Now the question is, why would throwing away these products be unethical?

When we throw away electronics, it eventually ends up in landfills (learn more about landfills through this video). According to research by Perkins et al, these phones contain toxic chemicals and hazardous contents that contaminate both water and land; water that is usually in close contact with people in developing countries in Africa and Asia, as this is where most of the waste is shipped off to under the pretense of “donations” and “recycling”. The contamination of land and water, in turn, affects the health and development of those in these areas that are in close contact with them. Moreover, batteries found in our phones usually contain barium, lead and lithium which can also contaminate ponds and streams through underground channels. You as an individual can help prevent this by holding on to these gadgets as long as you can, and only replacing them when needed.

Source: Getty Images 

Additionally, the electronic industry alone produces about 50 million tons of waste each year. Throwing away products may seem like a cheap and effective way to get rid of these items but most of them cannot be recycled. Companies promote this illusion that their products can be recycled to make the company or product appear “greener”. This allows for the majority of the public to believe that e-waste is not an issue because their electronics can be recycled. According to an article by Vaute, when individuals think their products are recyclable, it makes them feel better about themselves, and although recycling these products seems like a reasonable solution, it does nothing to reduce pollution. This is because the majority of these products are disposed of unethically, rather than recycled, leading to land and water pollution. 

However, consumers are fooled under the illusion that their products are “green”, and this allows for continued purchase. It is important to remember to ensure that all products are actually green before deciding to make a purchase, and you can do this by checking certifications and labels and do a little background research on the desired company through credible sources like Ethical Consumer.

In addition, the increased demand for these products has also led to a shortage of earth’s resources, making it highly unsustainable. Materials that are used to make the newer slicker designs that we all love, actually consist of precious natural resources putting a strain on the earth’s resources. Subsequently, people in African countries like Congo, risk their lives to mine these materials needed for the slicker designs. This is another reason why it is important to hand on to your gadgets as long as you can!

 Additionally, there are other numerous ways to reduce our impacts: we can avoid overcharging batteries, not buying unnecessary gadgets, donate used electronics and ensure the products you buy are environmentally friendly. To find out ways you can reduce your impact you can check out this article by Harvard University.

However, consumers aren’t all to blame. Although we can make a significant difference by reducing how often we buy these products, the root of the problem of e-waste lies with the manufacturers, who intentionally make these products have a short lifespan to keep us coming back. If the lifespan of these products were increased by only half a decade, their impact on global warming would actually be reduced by 30%; an interesting statistic that addresses the need for these products to be reformed to allow for longer usage.

Consumer awareness of these issues is crucial. We need to break this habit of updating our electronics regularly and instead demand longer-lasting gadgets, repair current products, and be well-informed on what materials are used in the making of our electronics to ensure they can be recycled. Putting yourself in the shoes of an innocent individual that has been affected by E-waste, having to drink contaminated water, or live near landfills can help understand the impact. We cannot continue this harmful cycle. So please, take all this into consideration and be well informed when deciding if that next electronic product is really worth the purchase.

Sources:

Idea. Triple bottom line: It consists of three ps: Profit, people and planet. (2009, Nov 17). The Economist (Online), Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/docview/1220396662?accountid=14906

Kraaijenbrink, J. (n.d.). Why isn’t the new iPhone 12 more eco-Friendly? Retrieved November 24, 2020, from Forbes website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeroenkraaijenbrink/2020/02/03/why-isnt-the-new-iphone-12-more-eco-friendly/?sh=703d156d27b3

Patel, P. (n.d.). Smartphones are warming the planet far more than you think. Retrieved from 

Perkins, D., Brune Drisse, M., Nxele, T., & Sly, P. (2014). E-Waste: A Global Hazard. Annals of Global Health, 80(4), 286–295. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aogh.2014.10.001

Prince, E. (2020, Dec. 12). The 7 sins of greenwashing. (2019, December 3). Retrieved November 24, 2020, from Better World Apparel website: https://betterworldapparel.com/learn/the-7-sins-of-greenwashing/

‌Tobien, J. (2017, March 27). Smartphone pollution: How sustainable is the mobile phone industry? Retrieved from Thestar.com.my website: https://www.thestar.com.my/tech/tech-news/2017/03/27/smartphone-pollution-how-sustainable-is-the-mobile-phone-industry/

Vaute, V. (n.d.). Recycling Is Not The Answer To The E-Waste Crisis. Retrieved November 24, 2020, from Forbes website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/vianneyvaute/2018/10/29/recycling-is-not-the-answer-to-the-e-waste-crisis/?sh=7681da507381

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