One of the biggest challenges of the 21st century is dealing with the progress of the 20th century — especially old computers, monitors, cellular phones and televisions. These appliances depend on hazardous materials, such as mercury, to operate. After a five-to-eight-year useful life, many are tossed into dumpsters and sent to landfills where those hazardous materials can leach into the soil, streams and groundwater.
That was the opening paragraph of a column I wrote 20 years ago. Today the problem is much larger, more complex and presents greater dangers to public health and our environment worldwide. It worsens when that list includes spent lithium-ion batteries (which power electric vehicles), worn-out solar panels and decommissioned wind turbine blades.
Collectively, finding ways to prevent old batteries and unwanted electronics from entering landfills is one of the most vexing problems President-elect Joe Biden faces.
In March, Waste Advantage Magazine reported: “Lithium-ion batteries are expected to play a critical role in the green energy transition, but despite surging global demand for the metals that go into them, we’re doing a terrible job recovering those metals after batteries die.” Today, researchers estimate that less than 5 percent of lithium batteries are recycled.
Unfortunately, the majority of discarded electronic products end up in landfills, and just 12.5 percent of e-waste is recycled. According to a United Nations study, over 41.8 million tons of e-waste were trashed worldwide last year. It is equivalent to throwing out 800 laptops every single second.
The predicament is growing much worse because nearly 5 billion people now own cell phones. Most people replace them every 18 months when upgraded models come out or batteries die. According to Statista, the current number of smartphone users is 3.5 billion — 45 percent of the world’s population. In the United States, 416,000 cellphones are dumped into landfills or incinerators annually.
Recycling methods vary substantially. The EHS Journal reports the most urgent issue today is that approximately 80 percent of unwanted electronics are improperly disposed. E-waste is either discarded or exported to emerging nations, where open-air burning and acid baths are used to reclaim precious metals and other elements. Those crude reclamation practices are harmful to people’s health and emit toxic pollutants.
According to a 2010 U. S. Congressional Research Service report, the lack of environmental controls in nations that have lower pollution control standards than the U.S. has resulted in elevated heavy metal levels in people, animals and fish.
For example, the soil in China’s Guiyu region, referred to as the “e-waste capital of the world,” is laced with some of the world’s highest concentrations of dioxins and heavy metals. These toxic pollutants have not only contaminated farm lands, but its water contains lead 2,400 times higher than safe ingestion levels.
Laws governing e-waste have been a long time coming, but countries are finally beginning to adopt them in the face of growing environmental and health concerns.
A few years ago when China — which took 70 percent of the world’s e-waste — banned the import of various devices, a mad-rush erupted among countries like the U.S. to find alternatives. Thailand quickly became a “new dumping ground,” according to Reuters.
Shifting dumps sites is not a solution.
The problem is overwhelming and requires innovative approaches. We must find new ways to safely recycle electronic devices and batteries, which prevents hazardous materials from entering our air, land and water. Correspondingly, increased recycling lessens the need for mining and smelting new metals.
What is happening now is not safe for our environment or people, especially those trying to survive in areas already contaminated by e-waste.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.