Toxicity and electronic and electrical waste, solutions in progress

Ask any professional electrician or electrical engineer, and you won’t be left in any doubt about how dangerous the chemistry in electronics and electrical products are. Yet the world throws out huge amounts of waste every day, and these materials are literally clogging up waste management facilities.

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Photo: hotindienews.com

Many of the materials in electronic waste, particularly batteries, are extremely toxic, containing lead, cadmium and mercury, and other heavy metals. These are not good things to be putting into any environment, and preventing them from leaking into the soil and water table is one of the primary considerations. Old style waste disposal was allowing these materials to leach into the soil, or worse, to be turned into aerosol particles by incineration, a particularly dangerous way of broadcasting dangerous compounds and oxides around the world.

What’s not generally realized is that the sheer volume of materials is so huge. Computers, peripherals, TVs, phones, and other basic household equipment is sold in tens of millions of units, and all of these materials return in the form of waste. It’s taken a long time, but a systematic approach is now emerging to managing e-waste and recycling as much as possible of it.

To give some idea of how toxic these materials are, heavy metals are perfectly capable of sterilizing any area, if they’re present in sufficient quantities. Even bacteria have difficulty surviving at certain levels of contamination. For humans, the simple fact is that there’s no safe level of exposure to these materials in any more than infinitesimal amounts. Prolonged exposure is likely to be extremely dangerous, if not fatal.

All of these materials are also chemically active, when exposed directly to living things. Lead simply kills tissues. Acids and cell chemistry from the tissue react with lead, and the tissue dies.

E-waste management basics
The most straightforward approach to e-waste management is a series of stages:

1.    Collection
2.    Disassembly
3.    Component sorting
4.    Separation of hazardous materials
5.    Recycling of components and housing materials
6.    Safe disposal of hazardous wastes

A significant problem is created by the fact that lead, cadmium and mercury are generally not reusable with modern technology. Recovery isn’t cost-effective, because of the high levels of safety required to manage them. “Sustainable”, they’re not, and it’s now looking like they’ll be phased out entirely within a generation as new, better technology like super capacitors replace batteries.

Green policies driving new designs
It’s interesting to note that many of the world’s major manufacturers have now taken up Green concepts as design policies. In China, where pollution is an extremely serious problem, Green technologies are being introduced as fast as possible. That will help curb e-waste issues around the world, although naturally there’s some time lag between Green technologies being invented and entering the mainstream consumer markets. The old technology, of course, will also leave a legacy of waste issues which will need to be permanently solved.

Electrical services also re-use safe, materials and components, helping keep further waste out of the system. E-waste management has a distance to go before becoming 100% fully recyclable, but the signs are good.

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1 Comment

  1. The technology and it’s harmful effects to the environment and people. whew!

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