Dear EarthTalk: We must really be swimming in electronic waste, what with all the iPhones and other devices that are so common. How is this all being dealt with?
— Mary Shufelt, New Bern, N.C.
With electronic equipment and gadgets the fastest growing waste stream in many countries, how to deal with so-called “e-waste” may in fact be one of the most pressing environmental problems of the 21st century. According to BCC Research, consumers around the world purchased 238.5 million TVs, 444.4 million computers and tablets and a whopping 1.75 billion mobile phones in 2012 alone. Most of us discard such items within three years of purchase, and this is driving the global growth in e-waste by some eight percent a year. Meanwhile, a recent study conducted by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on behalf of the United Nations found that the growth in demand for and manufacturing of new electronics will result in a 33 percent increase in e-waste globally between 2012 and 2017.
But why is e-waste any more of a problem than old fashioned garbage? “Some of the materials in personal electronics, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, are hazardous and can release dangerous toxins into our air and water when burned or deposited in landfills improperly,” reports the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “And throwing away metal components, like the copper, gold, silver and palladium in cell phones and other electronics, leads to needless mining for new metals.”