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5 steps to greener disposal of e-waste

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By Howard M. Cohen

Forty-nine million metric tons: That’s the amount of electronic waste (e-waste) generated in 2012, with 9.4 million tons coming from the United States, more than any other country, according to a United Nations-led study. By definition, this includes large and small household appliances, IT and telecommunications equipment, consumer equipment, lighting equipment, electrical and electronic tools, toys, leisure and sports equipment, medical devices, monitoring and control instruments as well as automatic dispensers. It’s a lot of scrap.

Impact of e-waste on human health

What is not known is how much of this E-waste is properly disposed of. According to a recent article on the website Before It’s News, titled “E-Waste Pollution’ Threat to Human Health,” “researchers have now linked e-waste to adverse effects on human health, such as inflammation and oxidative stress – precursors to cardiovascular disease, DNA damage and possibly cancer.”

Citing a study published by IOP Science, a journal of the Institute of Physics (IOP), the article notes “Due to the crude recycling process, many pollutants, such as persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals, are released from e-waste, which can easily accumulate in the human body through the inhalation of contaminated air. After exposing the cultured lung cells to the organic-soluble and water-soluble constituents of the samples, the researchers tested for the level of Interleukin-8 (IL-8), a key mediator of inflammatory response, and Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), chemically reactive molecules that can cause extensive damage in excess.”

The IOP Science study’s co-author, Dr Fangxing Yang, of Zhejiang University, wrote: “Both inflammatory response and oxidative stress may lead to DNA damage, which could induce oncogenesis, or even cancer. Of course, inflammatory response and oxidative stress are also associated with other diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases.” Yang concluded, “From these results it is clear that the ‘open’ dismantlement of e-waste must be forbidden with more primitive techniques improved. As the results show potential adverse effects on human health, workers at these sites must also be given proper protection.

Ecological and financial effects

Yahoo! Finance, reporting recently on “16 Companies Recognized for Recycling E-Waste in 2013” observed: “These leading companies in electronics manufacturing, insurance, retail, technology and telecommunications industries each recycled between 1-10 million pounds over the 12-month period. These businesses dedicate significant corporate resources to ensure that the proper methods for recycling and waste disposal are in place. This level of investment creates jobs, conserves natural resources and reduces carbon emissions.”

Supporting the conservation claims, the report points out, “Based on the U.S. EPA Waste Reduction Model from February 2012, reusing or recycling 100 million pounds of electronic waste is equivalent to conserving approximately 12.5 million gallons of gasoline, removing 25,000 cars from the road, or planting 2.9 million trees.”

E-waste: Take the next StEP

StEP (Solving the E-Waste Problem) is a global organization devoted improving the ways in which e-waste is disposed of with members that include Dell, HP, Cisco, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), MIT, Nokia, as well as multiple agencies from Samoa, Switzerland, Egypt, England, China, Austria, Japan, Ecuador, Belgium, Jamaica, Thailand, Canada and others.

The StEP Initiative consists of  five principles and five task forces. The five principles are:

  1. StEP’s work is founded on scientific assessments and incorporates a comprehensive view of the social, environmental and economic aspects of e-waste.
  2. StEP conducts research on the entire life cycle of electrical and electronic equipment and their corresponding global supply, process and material flows.
  3. StEP’s research and pilot-projects are meant to contribute to the solution of e-waste problems.
  4. StEP condemns all illegal activities related to e-waste including illegal shipments and reuse/recycling practices that are harmful to the environment and human health.
  5. StEP seeks to foster safe and eco- and energy-efficient reuse and recycling practices around the globe in a socially responsible manner.

5 steps to greener disposal of e-waste

Much can be learned about the process of safe, green disposal by examining the five task forces. The five steps below can serve as your guide to greener e-waste disposal:

  • Policy – The analysis of existing approaches and e-waste policies in order to issue recommendations for future developments in both developing and developing world.
  • ReDesign – Efforts to support the design for better reuse, repair, refurbishment and recycling.
  • ReUse – The development of replicable, sustainable and globally consistent reuse systems for electrical and electronic equipment.
  • ReCycle – The enhancement of global recycling infrastructures, systems and technologies to realize sustainable e-waste recycling systems with special focus in developing countries.
  • Capacity building – The development of infrastructures for sustainable, efficient, effective and target group-oriented capacity building to increase awareness on the growing e-waste problem.

Clicking the header links will take you to more information about each of these task forces and provide more guidance for launching your own green e-waste initiative.

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