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How Does Electronic Waste Impact the Environment?

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America tosses out tons of old electronics every year from cell phones, laptops, TVs, and even coffeemakers. Basically, anything that can be plugged in or has a battery can be considered electronic waste, or e-waste, once it is broken or no longer in use. E-waste is tricky to recycle because there are so many different types that all contain a different mix of materials. What many folks don’t know is that a lot of that e-waste contains toxic chemicals, things like lead and mercury, which if they aren’t handled properly can contaminate the environment and cause serious health issues. Join Myles in investigating where our e-waste goes once we get rid of it to answer the question: How does e-waste impact the environment?

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What is e-waste?

E-waste is basically anything with a plug or battery that you don’t want or need anymore. It’s your old electronics.  Around 6.92 million tons in 2019 alone and a lot of that e-waste contains toxic chemicals, such as lead and mercury, and brominated flame retardants. If those are not handled properly, they can contaminate the environment and cause serious health issues.  Smoke from burning e-waste is very toxic.

What happens to our old electronics?


If you take your e-waste to a collection site or recycler, then those electronics are likely taken to a recycling facility and processed there. E-waste is tricky to recycle because there are so many different types that all contain a different mix of materials, some of which is toxic. At a recycling facility, it’s often sorted, and data is deleted from devices. Some devices or components can be refurbished or reused, while others will be processed. This can mean that parts like metals and plastics can be separated out, and then sold to smelters to go back into manufacturing. But, sometimes recyclers end up shipping old electronics overseas to developing countries– where they do not have strict environmental and safety standards. This exposes workers and the environment to those toxic substances, which has created massive environmental and health problems. The World Health Organization estimates that 18 million children work at these dangerous e-waste dump sites around the globe.

What should you do with your old electronics?

Dropping your electronics off at an e-stewards certified recycler is one of the best ways to ensure your e-waste won’t go overseas and will be handled responsibly. E-steward-certified recyclers have pledged to not ship their stuff overseas, and handle the waste in an environmentally sound way. They have surprise inspections to make sure they are doing so.

What is a circular economy?

A circular economy is an antithesis of designing for the dump. Instead of extracting raw materials from the earth, making something, and then dumping it when you’re done with it, you would reuse and recycle materials and use those materials in the manufacturing process so that you are generating less waste and extracting fewer raw materials from the earth. E-waste recycling is part of the circular economy.


What is E-waste? (Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership) 

This article from Global E-Waste Statistics Partnerships explains the six different categories of e-waste.

The Importance of Cell Phone Recycling (Repowered)

This article from Repowered explains how improper cell phone disposal can impact the environment and human health.

Planned Obsolescence (Consumers International)

This blog from Consumers International explains how planned obsolescence works in electronics and how folks are trying to stop it.

Children and Digital Dumpsites (World Health Organization)

This report from the World Health Organization explains the health outcomes of children who are exposed to toxins found in e-waste dumpsites.

A New Circular Vision for Electronics (World Economic Forum)

This report from the World Economic Forum explains what e-waste is, and its impact on the environment and calls for action to properly recycle electronics so that they can be reused in a circular economy.

Global Transboundary E-waste Flows 2022 (United Nations)

This report from the United Nations shows the global transportation of e-waste and the impact it has on different regions and countries of the world.

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