The Dilemma of Electronic Waste

This past fall, I went to a film screening at the University of Minnesota with my local zero waste friend and the writer and curator of the lovely blog, Amber. The film was a documentary called Luen Hai: Decoding the Connection, and it was made by a group of 20 students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota. Read more about them here

Before I watched this film, I had never really thought about electronic waste, or E-waste. I didn't even know that you're not supposed to throw electronics into your garbage. It's actually illegal in my state of Minnesota to put computers and tvs into the landfill. (source) Why?  They contain "hazardous chemicals and toxic metals. When landfills used to accept these items for disposal, the chemicals and metals seeped into the ground and water supply." (source)

What are these hazardous chemicals and toxic metals? 

  • arsenic
    • "Inorganic arsenic is a confirmed carcinogen and is the most significant chemical contaminant in drinking-water globally. Adverse health effects that may be associated with long-term ingestion of inorganic arsenic include developmental effects, diabetes, pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease." (source)
  • lead
    • "Lead is a toxic metal whose widespread use has caused extensive environmental contamination and health problems in many parts of the world. It is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems, including the neurologic, hematologic, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and renal systems. Children are particularly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of lead, and even relatively low levels of exposure can cause serious and in some cases irreversible neurological damage." (source)
  • poly-brominated flame retardants
  • mercury
    • "Elemental and methylmercury are toxic to the central and peripheral nervous systems. The inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal. The inorganic salts of mercury are corrosive to the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract, and may induce kidney toxicity if ingested." (source)
  • cadmium
    • "Cadmium exerts toxic effects on the kidney, the skeletal and the respiratory systems, and is classified as a human carcinogen. It is generally present in the environment at low levels. However, human activity has greatly increased those levels." (source)
  • chromium
    • "The respiratory tract is the major target organ for chromium (VI) toxicity, for acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) inhalation exposures. Shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing were reported from a case of acute exposure to chromium (VI), while perforations and ulcerations of the septum, bronchitis, decreased pulmonary function, pneumonia, and other respiratory effects have been noted from chronic exposure.  Human studies have clearly established that inhaled chromium (VI) is a human carcinogen, resulting in an increased risk of lung cancer.  Animal studies have shown chromium (VI) to cause lung tumors via inhalation exposure." (source)

  • polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

    • "PCBs have been demonstrated to cause a variety of adverse health effects. They have been shown to cause cancer in animals as well as a number of serious non-cancer health effects in animals, including: effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and other health effects. Studies in humans support evidence for potential carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic effects of PCBs. The different health effects of PCBs may be interrelated. Alterations in one system may have significant implications for the other systems of the body." (source)

  • barium
    • "The predominant effect is hypokalemia, which can result in ventricular tachycardia, hypertension and/or hypotension, muscle weakness, and paralysis.... In addition to the effects associated with hypokalemia, gastrointestinal effects such as vomiting, abdominal cramps, and watery diarrhea are typically reported shortly after ingestion. Similar effects have been reported in cases of individuals exposed to very high concentrations of airborne barium; the effects include electrocardiogram (ECG) abnormalities, muscle weakness and paralysis, hypokalemia, and abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting." (source)
  • lithium
    • Effects of lithium exposure: "Inhalation: Burning sensation. Cough. Laboured breathing. Shortness of breath. Sore throat. Symptoms may be delayed. Skin: Redness. Skin burns. Pain. Blisters. Eyes: Redness. Pain. Severe deep burns. Ingestion: Abdominal cramps. Abdominal pain. Burning sensation. Nausea. Shock or collapse. Vomiting. Weakness." (source)

These chemicals are in more than just tvs and computers. What can you think of that connects to power in some way, either by plugging into a wall or using batteries? Christmas tree lights, stereos, kitchen appliances, lamps, lightbulbs, game consoles, DVD and BluRay players, smart devices, your electronic car keys, keyboards, power cables, wires and cords of all kinds, and those LED lights that are supposedly so much better for the environment. None of those should really go into the landfill.

To Recycle or Not to Recycle

You can recycle your electronics, but not by putting them into your recycling bin at the curb. It's not easy, and it's not convenient. Usually you'll be taking your electronics to a private company that disassembles them and sells the individual parts for money, usually overseas. Very often, your waste doesn't get fully recycled. Whole electronics get shipped on containers to developing countries in Asia and Africa where they are dumped, and inexperienced people and children who are not equipped to deal with such hazardous materials burn and smash them so they can sell the valuable metals. Burning releases those aforementioned toxins into the air. (source)

Since the 2014-16 crashes in commodity prices, it's been hard for recycling companies to make money from the electronics you bring in. These companies used to be able to take your electronics, take them apart, and sell the copper, the gold, and the little bits of metals in there to companies in China and other nations to be made into new products. Now these recyclers will actually charge you for their services, because they can't make enough money to sustain their business. If you really want to have all your electronics recycled, you'll be paying for it.

 Photo by  Vadim Sherbakov  on  Unsplash

Recycling isn't a great option in many ways anyway. According to iFixit.Org:

  • Between 20% and 35% of the material content of a phone is lost when the phone is shredded and melted down for recycling.
  • Critical rare earths are present in every single electronic device you own. 99% of them cannot be recovered for recycling.
  • Your smartphone consumes enough energy during manufacturing to power 1,200 60-watt light bulbs for an hour—energy lost when the phone is shredded.
  • Zero smartphones have been made from 100% recycled materials. We cannot make a new phone from an old one.
  • All the energy, water, and emissions created during the production of electronics can’t be recovered during recycling. When recyclers shred phones and computers that could be repaired or reused, they are shredding the embodied energy and materials, too.

So what's the answer?


"The best shot we have at reducing the environmental impact of our electronics is to keep them around for as long as possible.
Repair is the first line of defense against waste. It extends the life of electronics: users can replace broken components, put in a better battery, or upgrade to higher-capacity RAM whenever they want. That means less stuff in landfills and less things in a recycler’s shredder.
 Photo by  Tyler Lastovich  on  Unsplash
And it doesn’t stop with the owner. Manufacturers can repair their products, too. 65% of all cell phones collected in the US are refurbished or repaired, then resold—not recycled. That’s because recyclers make an average of about 50 cents per recycled phone. Resellers, for comparison, average $20 per phone.
Even better, when stuff is repaired, it holds on to all the energy and all the materials it used up during manufacturing. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is lost.


What is the conclusion? It would be a lot easier if we didn't know about this and didn't care about this! But it's too late for me now - I can't not know it now. What can we do?

  1. Take care of what you have, pay to have them repaired, and make them last a long time.
  2. Pledge to not buy new electronics. You might not be leading the pack with new devices, but your great-grandkids will thank you if you buy only used. 
  3. Make do with what you have, even if you don't like it anymore. Companies want you to buy new game consoles and all the games that come with it. Look up "planned obsolescence" and scream at those tempting commercials "YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!"

There are more cell phones in the world than there are people. (source) We've all probably had at least 3 phones by now, right? I keep thinking about this. If we've all made three items of phone trash in our life and that alone is such a huge problem and strain for the world, think about how much plastic trash there is out there and the huge problem it creates. We all make, what, at least ten items of plastic trash a day on average? It's terrible to think about! Plastic contains its own toxic chemicals that seep into groundwater, etc. It can be overwhelming, but we can all do one thing a day that will benefit the health of the people on this planet for generations to come. Sometimes it's enough to say 'yes' to an invitation to see a documentary.

Don't stop being curious, friends. We've got a lot to learn and a ways to go, but we can make real change - and that's exciting!

 Photo by  Randall Bruder  on  Unsplash


Further Reading

  • I highly suggest looking at even just to look at the stats that they've collected. iFixit is leading the world in helping people fix their things through tutorials, community engagement, and education. Take their pledge to "join fixers around the world and commit to fix more things this year. Save money. Protect the planet. Make stuff work again." here.
  • The World Health Organization wrote an article on E-Waste as it regards to the risk on children's environmental health. Read it here.
  • A mesmerizing article from The Washington Post, displaying the photography of Valentino Bellini "which documents the disposal of electronic waste and tells the stories of those involved in it. The project has brought Bellini across the globe, from recycling sites in China to warehouses in Pakistan."