What harmful substances are in electronic waste?

Everyone wants to have the latest, most convenient, and feature-packed electronics in their hands. Consumers love upgrades and new tech. However, this also means they dispose of millions of tons of electronic waste each year when they buy a new gadget, television, or computer. What’s more, these devices are not made to last more than a couple of years.

Chemicals like lead, beryllium, mercury, and cadmium can not only harm human health, but they can also damage the environment. Buried in a landfill, these substances can contaminate water sources and harm wildlife. However, recycling circuit boards and hard drives can yield valuable resources that industry can use for new products. Sweden created such a program in 1991 to collect refrigerators and, later, other electronic devices. 

Germany and France produced the most e-waste among EU countries in 2019, generating 1.6 million and 1.4 million tons, respectively. According to Statista, however, this is a small amount compared to China and the United States. The Verge reported that the U.S. produced nearly 7 million tons of e-waste during the same time period. And according to Reuters, China accumulated over 10 million tons.

According to a paper in Environment International, the waste from mobile phones would not pose a “major danger” if they were collected and recycled properly. This may not be happening in developing countries, the paper says, because the substances present a much greater risk if they are subjected to open burning. Billions of mobile phones “are turning into obsolete devices every year around the world,” according to the authors.

The Environmental Protection Agency says acid baths and leaching can “expose workers to high levels of contaminants such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.” This can cause cancers, miscarriages, and neurological damage, the EPA also says.

Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. are partnering in the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation to better understand the flow of e-waste across boundaries. Experts meet annually to discuss the problem and listen to experts on the subject. Representatives of governments in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America have attended in the past. Still, the EPA says that better data would help “paint a more comprehensive picture” of overall trade flows.

The EU has implemented the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive to reduce electronic waste by encouraging proper recycling, reuse, and recovery. Consumers should have a way to return electronic items free of charge, according to the directive. Producers are supposed to dispose of the waste in an ecologically friendly way or find ways to reuse or refurbish electronic items. Some items are exempt: photovoltaic panels, military equipment, and active implantable medical devices. 

To prevent the creation of hazardous waste, the EU also enacted the Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive. This restricts the use of several harmful compounds in manufacturing. China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S. have created similar regulations. European companies and companies who are selling their products in the EU have to make sure their products meet the RoHS test standard which ensures hazardous materials are not included in electronic devices. 

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