A Brief Introduction to E-Waste

Discussions of environmental rights and digital technology have two poles: 'How can digital technology help us solve environmental problems,' and 'How does digital technology use impact the environment?' Most attention regarding the latter has been directed at accounting for carbon emissions, which is a serious problem. This week, however, I focused my research on the problem of e-waste.


Globally, e-waste is somewhat under-documented. The biggest factor in e-waste is clearly smart phones, and these have only been widely used for a little over ten years. As noted in previous posts, Cambodians use smart phones much more than computers for their Internet access. It is clear from the number of smart phones and other digital devices sold and in circulation that the cumulative effect of e-waste will create significant environmental problems. The research I have found is beginning to asses and predict the level of toxicity, pollution vectors, environmental impacts, and health-effects involved.


Smart phones contain heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, or lead, and chemical compounds such as CFCs, HFCs, BFRs, PDBEs, and PBBs. These compounds were found to be “persistent, bioaccumulat[ive], and toxic” by the UN's E-Waste Montior 2020--which also found there to be 280 grams of gold per ton of e-waste (a ton of gold ore, by comparison, yields between 1-10 grams of gold ore). Clearly, electronics recycling and reclamation would be both a high-priority environmental responsibility and potentially lucrative. Yet, digital device recycling rates are generally low; the smart phones that are discarded end up as waste. If that waste is incinerated, leaches into wetlands, or is dumped into a river such as the Mekong, that is a problem.


A worrying trend in developing countries is informal recycling activities undertaken by poor families. These scavenging operations often involve children, and create another vector for direct exposure to dangerous toxins. In my class last semester on Regulation of Toxic Substances and Hazardous Waste, my professor quoted Paracelsus, 'it's the dose that makes the poison' ["sola dosis facit venenum]--and this is essential to understanding the risk in this scenario. Daily, occupational exposure to heavy metals and toxic chemicals has been shown by UNICEF to lead to neurological, immune, cardiovascular, and DNA damage. In the former scenarios, of environmental contamination, the toxins still undergo magnification by food chains, concentrating the highest dose in the fish and livestock humans like to eat.


The research on e-waste is growing, but there is not yet as much data or as many studies as other, comparably significant environmental problems. Precautionary laws on e-waste, specifically, may be beneficial. But it is likely that the biggest differences will come from building recycling capacity, promoting circular economy in design, and encouraging the public to actively recycle their electronics.