Is e-waste poisoning our environment?

Electronic waste, or e-waste, currently constitutes 2 to 5 percent of the US municipal solid waste stream. That’s a small amount, right? Maybe not. Carnegie Mellon University has predicted that there are already 70 million computers in our landfills. That number isn’t small, it’s staggering! The average computer screen contains five to eight pounds or more of lead. Lead from computer screens accounts for 40 percent of all the lead in US landfills. That’s a lot of lead!

As any waste hauler will tell you, e-waste is a growing problem in municipal waste. These high numbers will keep growing as long as we keep throwing electronics into the trash. When we get rid of our electronic waste, we don’t really think much about what happens to it after that. We know that it’s going to the landfill, and that’s OK. It’s trash, right? And all trash should go to the landfill, right? Wrong!

Some trash should never go to the landfill, and there are good reasons why. Let’s look at one common type of e-waste: CRT televisions. How many of us have these dinosaurs tucked away somewhere? Like everything else that we replace, we tend to hold on to old electronics “just in case” we need them again someday. When “someday” never comes, we decide to get rid of them. We can’t put them in our recycling carts so we put them in the trash. And, off to the landfill they go. But what happens next?

Like everything else that goes to the landfill, electronics, including our CRT television, will eventually break down and degrade. When this happens, the chemicals and metals begin to leach into the soil. When it rains, the metals and chemicals are moved along little by little. They eventually reach our waterways, contaminating them just as they had contaminated the soil. Plants use soil and water. Animals, insects, and people all need water in order to survive. The entire cycle of life is affected. And, some of the toxic elements that are released into the environment are airborne—we all breathe them in. So, what does that CRT television contain that is so harmful to our environment?

Lead

About 20% of a CRT television is made up of lead. Lead is a highly toxic substance that can be the cause of cancers, learning difficulties, behavior problems, and can lead to death. We’ve known about the health hazards of lead for quite some time, and even took measures to remove it from paint. But, it found its way back into our homes through technology.

CRT Televisions

CRT Televisions – Toxic

Mercury

Mercury is found in most electronic items, as well as in the new energy efficient CFL bulbs. Not only can mercury harm our health when leaked into the atmosphere, but it only takes 1/70th of a teaspoon to contaminate a 25-acre lake to the point where fish are unsafe to eat.

Chromium

Ingestion of chromium(VI) through drinking water has been found to cause cancer in the oral cavity and small intestine. It can also cause irritation or ulcers in the stomach and intestines, and toxicity in the liver. We can thank Erin Brockovich for bringing this bad boy to the attention of millions. 

Cadmium, Arsenic, Polybrominated Flame Retardants, Barium, And Lithium

Their health effects are numerous. The health effects of these toxins on humans include birth defects, and brain, heart, liver, kidney, and skeletal system damage. They also significantly affect the nervous and reproductive systems of the human body. They can also be carcinogenic.

Beryllium

Inhalation of beryllium or beryllium-containing dust, mist, or fumes can cause a chronic lung disorder called berylliosis in susceptible persons. According to the National Institute of Health, it is also a probable human carcinogen.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Hazardous chemical additives (like phthalates) can leach into the soil and waterways when PVC components of electronic products are sent to landfills. 

There are other chemicals and metals found in electronics of all kinds. As technology advances, new processes and materials become new problems. We tend to go along blindly with whatever is new and innovative, assuming that it is simply better. But, is it? Is the new technology better in the short term, but vastly worse in the long?

Seventy million computers already in our landfills. Forty percent of the lead in our landfills coming from computer screens. Carcinogens in every landfill in the US. That’s a lot to think about. These problems will get worse before they get better. We’re learning more every day about how what we send to our landfills affects our environment and our health. As we continue to learn more, we’d like to encourage all our members to recycle responsibly. Be a part of the solution every day. Contact your City to learn more about responsible electronics recycling where you live.