The Environmental Impact of Electronic Waste

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From outdated television sets and computers to old cellular phones, VCRs, and stereo systems, electronic waste abounds in the industrial world. By some estimates, there are more than 300 million computers that are either obsolete or largely unused in America. Add to that the massive number of television sets made into garbage by the advent of digital TVs and the ever-growing amount of junked phones, MP3 players, and numerous other electronic gadgets and the potential for waste is enormous.

Greenpeace has calculated that only ¼ of the total electronic waste is recycled or properly treated before entering a landfill. Quite clearly, electronic waste is non-biodegradable. What is not so well known are the chemicals used in the production of most of this waste. When it ends up in landfills or incinerators, the negative environmental impact is severe.

Chemicals in Electronics

The outside of the most electronics is made of a combination of plastic, glass and sometimes metal. These materials alone should not simply end up in a landfill. Internally, though, the makeup of electronics consists of numerous chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic. Monitors from computers and televisions as well as the circuit boards contain lead. Newer flat-panel monitors also contain mercury. Cadmium, a carcinogen, is found in certain batteries. Other hazardous chemicals found in some electronics include zinc, chromium, selenium, arsenic, and PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls. Polyvinyl chloride or PVC as it is commonly known is a product with countless applications. One of these is insulation of cables and wires used in electronics. The release of chlorinated dioxins is a guarantee when these waste products are incinerated.

Environmental Damage

A pile of electronic waste.

There is no good way to dispose of electronics that contain these hazardous chemicals. Burying them in the landfill is one way, but after time the chemicals escape from the junked products and make their way into the groundwater. This leads to increased incidence of disease spawned by exposure to neurotoxins and carcinogens. Another option for waste disposal is incineration. This, however, is even worse than burying them in the ground, for the high temperatures needed to combust the electronics encourage the release and dispersal of many of the same chemicals, either in the form of airborne particles, in the ash or in water.


The best alternative to this problem is the proper collection and containment of used and unwanted electronics. Only through recycling can these chemicals be safely contained. Many of the materials can be used again for other industrial applications while the unusable parts are effectively stored or properly disposed of in a way that has the least amount of consequence for human health and the environment.

It takes a coordinated effort on the part of the municipalities, private industry and individuals to keep electronic waste out of the landfill and out of incinerators. Individuals motivated to recycle their used electronics will be more likely to do so. Private businesses encouraged and rewarded by local governments to provide a means of recycling will see a cost-benefit in it. Municipalities should jump at the chance to improve the surrounding environment, reducing negative impact and helping to create a better world in the process.