The Environmental Effects of Convenience

It is no secret that technology has made life easier for many businesses and to people personally. The convenience that technology brings to our everyday lives makes it hard to remember what it was like before desktop computers, cell phones, tablets and GPS (global positioning systems). Technology systems have made information available at our fingertips, connecting with old and new friends online quicker through social media, staying in touch with coworkers and clients easily with Email and helps businesses strive to reach new clients. But with every convenience, there are also drawbacks, such as the negative effects that technology has on our environment. As technology proceeds to become more intense each year with new makes and models being released continuously, where does the old technology go and how is it processed? What impacts does old technology have on our environment and on us?

Technology that has reached its life cycle, and no longer serves a purpose and is thrown away or recycled is considered e-waste. Because of the rapid growth in technology, e-waste is the fastest growing source of public waste. Though there are e-waste recycling businesses, these businesses ship old technology to either Asia or Africa, and the technology that is not recycled, gets thrown in the landfill where toxic chemicals often leak into ground soil and water. E-waste recyclers will recover precious metals such as copper, gold, silver and palladium out of e-waste. After the recovery of these precious metals, the waste is burned. An academic journal for Environmental Science and Pollution Research states that, “unfortunately, proper recycling facilities, management systems, and industry standards do not exist. No clear and specific national regulations have been established to define, restrict, or prohibit hazardous e-waste recycling” (Liu, Q., Shi, S., Du, L., Wang, Y., Cao, J., Xu, C., & … Hecker, M. (2012) Although one would think they are doing the right thing by recycling their old technology, it is actually a catch-22.

             Wages are very low in Guiyu, China, which is one of the capitals for e-waste. Because of low wages and no regulations in the industry of e-waste recycling, poisonous dioxins and furans, which have been linked to several forms of cancer, are breathed by the underpaid workers, causing serious health risks. To get lead out of circuit boards, they must be cooked and melted down, causing toxic fumes to be released into the air. Cathode-ray tubes, which produce the image on a screen once it is hit by an electron beam, are broken open which release harmful phosphor dust. Any remaining part of an electronic deemed unrecyclable will consist of large and small plastic parts, which are then burned, releasing chemicals into the air that are harmful to human health, eventually leaking into the soil and ground causing health risks for the environment, including wildlife.

An article by the University of Washington states that,

The result of heavy metal exposure as a result of improper e-waste recycling is well documented. In Guiyu, China, often coined the e-waste recycling capital of the world, 169 children were tested for concentrations of lead within their blood. Over 82% showed much higher than average levels of lead, with the highest concentration being in children whose families worked directly with taking apart printed circuit boards and other electronics. Similar impacts are seen with other heavy metals and the long-term neurological impacts, both in this and the next generation, are disturbing. (Denis Wilson, 2016)

E-waste contains over 1,000 different substances, and each substance is recycled differently either as hazardous or non-hazardous materials. Often, electronics will have substances such as plastic, precious metals, glass, plywood, ceramics, and rubber. Electronics also include elements such as flame retardants, mercury, lead and arsenic. Because of our now ever-consuming modern lifestyle revolved around technology, the manufacturers of electronical products are making more environmentally friendly parts that are less damaging to our environment and to the people who work at e-waste recycling plants abroad. People such as Andy Hooper, a green computing enthusiast, are coming up with new ways to run and make our electronics more eco friendly, such as server warehouses designed to run off renewable energy sources such as solar power, for all our computing needs. In fact, many computer companies are now replacing their old electronic parts with more new, recyclable hardware that can be more easily reused and has less impact on our environment. There are also many ways you as a consumer and technology user can make a difference on our e-waste impact.

It is always a good idea to extend the life of your electronics by practicing regular maintenance and keep your electronics away from water and excessive heat. Instead of buying an all new computer or laptop just do upgrades, which alternatively cost less. As an substitute of throwing your computer in the trash, consider donating it or taking out parts to be used in your next computer if you need them. There is also a system called the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which lets users compare, evaluate, and choose electronic products that are environmentally friendly providing them with 51 different environmental criteria. The European Union’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive also acts as an environmentally friendly regulation that took place in 2006. This command prohibits the use of many hazardous materials in computer manufacturing and only allows thirty-five percent of the materials used to not be reusable or recyclable. Users and manufacturers now can choose and offer more eco-friendly products.

With the ever-revolving door of technology, it is hard to see an end to e-waste, and frankly impossible, as our society relies on technology for almost everything. As long as there is technology, there will be e-waste. While technology proves to be essential to our society, it can also serve to be environmentally friendly. Computers have reduced the use of paper with the help of Email, online newspapers and magazines. With each new complex technology developed, there are more regulations set in place to extend the life of that hardware or make it more environmentally friendly. There are always ways to improve when it comes to our environment, and clearly, we have a lot to work on when it comes to e-waste. With the help of green computing, assessment tools, and restrictions of hazardous materials in electronics, our future with technology is only going to be become more mature in the green industry.

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