In 2011, the number of wireless devices in the United States exceeded the number of people living in this country. In 2015, when most Americans have access to a cell phone or computer, thousands of electronics are being disposed of every year. Three years ago, there were 327.6 million devices compared to the 315 million people living in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands at the time. When one of these devices breaks or gets swapped out in favor of a newer model, it often gets thrown away. These thrown out devices are known as e-waste.
“At present, there is no Federal mandate to recycle e-waste. There have been numerous attempts to develop a Federal law. However, to date, there is no consensus on a Federal approach,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
E-waste is often disposed in ways that harm the environment and the people and animals in the surrounding area of where it was thrown away. As reported by the STEP (Solving The E-waste Problem) Initiative, only 13 percent of the e-waste that is created annually is recycled.
Guiyu, China, is one of the largest direct-action disposal points in the world for electronic devices.
In a 2009 Greenpeace report about Guiyu and a few other places where e-waste disposal is a major issue, it said, “the data available does provide a compelling case for immediate action in both countries to address workplace health and safety and waste management.”
However, the large, unhealthy amount of disposal in Guiyu continues due to the lack of funding for better processing and help for the sick. Rather than dispose of e-waste in places such as the United States, where expensive safety regulations would be put into place, Guiyu works well for governments that are trying to save money, because they do not implement many safety rules in Guiyu.
Since many of the e-waste recycling techniques are dangerous to the environment and the people living near disposal sites, a majority of the people living in Guiyu suffer from medical ailments. Many of these ailments could be prevented if there were proper equipment and a better system for e-waste disposal. The dioxins in Guiyu have the highest percentage of cancer-causing chemicals. Higher than average levels of lead were also found in the children’s blood there, which causes harm to the development of the nervous system and brain.
A study by the Shantou University Medical College said, “Eighty two percent of the kids had blood/lead levels of over 100, which is considered unsafe by international health experts.” Many people in Guiyu get sick and die earlier due to preventable causes that could be stopped if health and safety measures were put into place.
The physical environment also suffers greatly due to the enormous amount of e-waste in the area. Flat screen displays on cell phones typically use mercury which is a toxic metal that can be very harmful to humans and land once released into the environment. Also, the rivers and streams in Guiyu receive run-off, dust, and dumped waste from the e-waste industry. Since the rivers are used for agriculture, so since the water is contaminated, the people are unprotected from the toxins in their food. Greenpeace tested the streams and found that they are highly acidic. The soil is also heavily polluted with chemicals. Several types of computer parts and circuit boards are burned in order to extract metals, however, this releases toxic gases into the air.
In the past few years, the Chinese government worked to regulate the amount of e-waste being brought into the country. Yet China itself now produces significant e-waste.
One way to combat the harmful effects of the massive amounts of e-waste would be for manufacturers to create products with fewer toxic chemicals. In the past, Greenpeace has lobbied for this to be a serious solution ready for implementation for companies, stating, “Ultimately legislation is required that prevents the use of all hazardous substances in electronics and ensures that producers are responsible for all end of life processing.”
Another solution to reduce the amount of e-waste is to inform the public of the harm they do by throwing their phone away and buying a new phone every time a new version comes out.
Companies also should work to reuse or safely dispose of electronics that people throw away. Lastly, more effective legislature regarding the health of Guiyu citizens and the environment needs to be created and enforced, as well as lowering the usage of toxic materials in electronics.