(1) Solid and Hazardous Waste

E-waste Republic

E-Waste - UNEP


E-Waste- An Exploding Problem

Electronic waste or e-waste consists of discarded television sets, cell phones, computers, e-toys, and other electronic devices. It is the fastest-growing solid waste problem in the United States and in the world. Each year, Americans discard an estimated 155 million cell phones, 250 million personal computers, and many more millions of television sets, iPods, Blackberries, and other electronic products.

Most e-waste ends up in landfills and incinerators. It includes high-quality plastics and valuable metals such as aluminum,  copper, nickel, platinum, silver, and gold. The concentration of copper in e-waste, for instance, is much higher than in currently mined copper ores. E-waste is also a source of toxic and hazardous pollutants, including polyvinylchloride (PVC), brominated flame retardants, lead, and mercury, which can contaminate air, surface water, groundwater, and soil.

According to a 2005 report by the Basel Action Network, about 50–80% of U.S. e-waste is shipped to China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and other developing countries where labor is cheap and environmental regulations are weak. Workers there, many of them children, dismantle such products to recover valuable metals like copper and gold and reusable parts and are exposed to the toxic metals. The remaining scrap is dumped in waterways and fields or burned in open fires, exposing many people to toxic dioxins. Transfer of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries is banned by the International Basel Convention, which the United States has refused to ratify.

The European Union (EU) has led the way in dealing with ewaste. In a cradle-to-grave approach, it requires manufacturers to take back electronic products at the end of their useful lives for repair, remanufacture, or recycling, and e-waste is banned from landfills and incinerators. Japan is also adopting cradle-tograve standards for electronic devices and appliances.

The United States produces roughly half of the world’s e-waste and recycles only about 10% of it, but that is changing. In 2000, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to ban the disposal of computers and TV sets in landfills and incinerators, and five other states have established similar regulations. Some electronics manufacturers including Apple, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sharp, Panasonic, and Sony have free recycling programs. Some will arrange for pickups or pay shipping costs. A growing consumer awareness of the problem has spawned highly profitable ecycling businesses. And, nonprofit groups, such as Free Geek in Portland, Oregon, are motivating many people to donate, recycle, and reuse old electronic devices. But e-recycling and reuse probably will not keep up with the explosive growth of e-waste. According to Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network, the only real long-term solution is a prevention approach that gets toxic materials out of electrical and electronic products by using green design. For example, Sony Electronics has eliminated toxic lead solder used to attach electronic parts together and has also removed potentially hazardous flame retardants from virtually all of its electronic products. The company has replaced old cathode ray tubes (which contain large quantities of toxic lead) used in televisions and computers with liquid crystal displays, which are more energy efficient and contain few hazardous materials. Electronic waste is just one of many types of solid and hazardous waste.

What Are Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste, and Why Are They Problems?

Solid waste represents pollution and unnecessary waste of resources, and hazardous waste contributes to pollution, natural capital degradation, health problems, and premature deaths.

We Throw Away Huge Amounts of Useful and Dangerous Stuff

In nature, there is essentially no waste because the wastes of one organism become nutrients for others. This recycling of nutrients is one of the four scientific principles of sustainability. Humans, on the other hand, produce huge amounts of waste that go unused and pollute the environment. Because of the law of conservation of matter and the nature of human lifestyles, we will always produce some waste, but the amount can be drastically reduced.

One major category of waste is solid waste-any unwanted or discarded material we produce that is not a liquid or a gas. Solid waste can be divided into two types. One is municipal solid waste (MSW), often called garbage or trash, which consists of the combined solid waste produced by homes and workplaces in a municipal area. Examples include paper and cardboard, food wastes, cans, bottles, yard wastes, furniture, plastics, metals, glass, wood, and e-waste.

The other type is industrial solid waste produced by mines, agriculture, and industries that supply people with goods and services. About 98.5% of all solid waste produced in the United States is industrial solid waste from mining (76%), agriculture (13%), and industry (9.5%). The remaining 1.5% is municipal solid waste. In developed countries most MSW is buried in landfills or burned in incinerators. In many developing countries, much of it ends up in open dumps, where poor people eke out a living finding items they can sell for reuse or recycling.

Another major category of waste is hazardous, or toxic, waste, which threatens human health or the environment because it is toxic, dangerously chemically reactive, corrosive, or flammable. Examples include industrial solvents, hospital medical waste, car batteries (containing toxic lead and acids), household pesticide products, dry-cell batteries (containing toxic mercury and cadmium), and incinerator ash. The two largest classes of hazardous wastes are organic compounds (such as various solvents, pesticides, PCBs, and dioxins) and toxic heavy metals (such as lead, mercury, chromium, and arsenic).

According to the United Nations, developed countries produce 80-90% of the world’s hazardous wastes.

The United States produces more of such wastes than any other country, with the chemical and mining industries and the military being the top three producers. As China continues to industrialize, it may take over the number one spot. In 2007, a U.S. environmental group, the Blackstone Institute, listed the world's 10 most polluted places that threaten the health of more than 10 million people in eight countries, including Russia (3 sites), China, India, Ukraine, Peru, Dominican Republic, and Zambia.

There are two reasons to be concerned about the amount of solid and hazardous  wastes we produce. First, at least three-fourths of these materials represent an unnecessary waste of the earth’s resources. Second, in producing the products we use and often discard, we create huge amounts of air pollution, greenhouse gases, water pollution, and land degradation.

Case Study

Solid Waste in the United States

The United States, with only 4.6% of the world’s population, produces about one-third of the world’s solid waste. About 98.5% of U.S. solid waste comes from mining, agricultural, and industrial activities.

The remaining 1.5% of U.S. solid waste is MSW.

The largest categories of these wastes are paper and cardboard (37%), yard waste (12%), food waste (11%), plastics (11%), and metals (8%). This small percentage of the overall solid waste problem is still huge. Each year, the United States generates enough MSW to fill a bumper-to-bumper convoy of garbage trucks encircling the globe almost eight times!

The United States also leads the world in trash production (by weight) per person, followed by Canada.

Each day the average American produces over 2.0 kilograms (4.5 pounds) of MSW, with three-fourths of it dumped in landfills or incinerated. That is about twice the amount of solid waste per person in other industrial countries such as Japan and Germany, and 5–10 times that amount in most developing countries.

Consider some of the solid wastes that consumers discard in the high-waste U.S. economy:

Enough tires each year to encircle the planet almost three times

Enough disposable diapers per year to, if linked end to end, reach to the moon and back seven times

Enough carpet each year to cover the U.S. state of Delaware

About 2.5 million nonreturnable plastic bottles every hour

About 25 billion throwaway Styrofoam cups per year used mostly for drinking coffee

About 25 million metric tons (27 million tons) of edible food per year

Enough office paper each year to build a wall 3.5 meters (11 feet) high across the country from New York City to San Francisco, California

Some 186 billion pieces of junk mail (an average of 660 pieces per American) each year, about 45% of which are thrown away unopened

Around 685,000 personal computers and 425,000 cell phones each day

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