E-Waste is a worldwide epidemic. The effects of improper disposal of e-waste, even that conducted by world governments, have been shown to be absolutely devastating on a global scale. The roughly 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste created worldwide is a figure that's been on a slow and steady rise for some time now, with experts saying that the phenomenon is growing by about 4% to 5% each year. Dangerous disposal methods, e-waste sitting in landfills, and e-waste that simply never makes it out of people's homes, often sitting in garages and attics for years, is putting e-waste processing workers, people in general and even the environment at extreme risk. Every different type of e-waste, from computer components to parts of construction vehicles and even light bulbs are all disposed of differently, both properly and improperly, and all present different risks to the world and people around them, mostly stemming from the chemicals contained in the e-waste.
Most electronic waste that contains printed circuit boards and components, like computer parts and smartphones, either get incinerated, releasing incredible amounts of hazardous chemicals into the air like carbon monoxide, or end up in acid baths to strip away the precious metals. While this recycles the valuable and environmentally unfriendly gold and copper often used in electronics, the heavier metals stripped out, as well as the acid used to do the work, have to be disposed of somehow. Most of the time, that somehow is by putting them into the nearest body of water or into a pit in the ground. From there, the chemicals inevitably make their way into the water supply. From there, depending on the amount of chemicals, natural water filtering in the groundwater, and the types of treatment and filtering that take place before water is served back into the population, these water supplies can become extremely toxic. The chemicals can also prematurely erode the rocks and soil around groundwater streams, disrupting them, speeding along pollution with no filter in place, or making the groundwater flood out into the soil above. In many cases, however, e-waste containing gold still ends up at the incinerator, in landfills or sitting around in random locations, resulting in a huge amount of the precious metal being lost. Given the fact that about 300 tons of the millions generated in 2014 contained gold, that can be a significant amount of gold exiting circulation, which could present an economic issue, given gold's worldwide value.
Another way e-waste is often dealt with, especially with smartphones, is a bit more environmentally friendly. Smartphones can often be recycled, having their parts stripped out to make other devices or be sold individually, or refurbished and put back out into the world. Components that can't be reused in recycling, such as the glass from the screen and the phone's metal or plastic body, are often melted down and made into new products in much the same way as plastic bags, glass bottles and aluminum cans. Various collection points can often lead to this sort of treatment, such as designated recycling centers and the bins found in some stores that are specially marked as good places to dispose of old MP3 players, phones and the like. All too often, however, they're collected through other means and often end up being disposed of via the methods described in the last paragraph, or by being exported to foreign countries for processing. Export of e-waste is a problem in and of itself. While developing countries produce most e-waste, it's the smaller countries that end up taking the hit for it. A village in Africa that's one of the top e-waste processing centers in the world, for example, has many times the maximum allowed lead concentration in their soil and water, making simply being there hazardous, let alone living there. The workers that interface directly with the e-waste and the members of the population that reap the fruits of their labors, both economically and in regards to pollution, are falling ill at alarming rates, with mental disabilities, birth defects and even comas and deaths from lead poisoning becoming commonplace.
While there are a large number of devastating effects stemming from the worldwide e-waste and improper disposal epidemic, there are also a large number of ways that common citizens can help with the issue. There are plenty of organizations out there, like E-Stewards, that you can donate to, ask for help or volunteer for. The easiest and most basic way to help out, however, is to properly dispose of your own e-waste. Whether that entails taking a failing car battery to a retailer, taking an old broken smartphone to your local Target to throw it in the designated bin, or even driving to a recycling center to get rid of an old TV, if you can name a piece of e-waste you may have around or will have around in the future, there is likely some official way to get rid of it where you live.