Why E-Waste is so Dangerous and How the ‘Right to Repair’ Will Save the Environment

As technology becomes increasingly central to our lives, e-waste or electronic waste is a piling up in our landfills and polluting our environment.

As environmentalists fight to combat climate change, electronic waste is silently piling up and becoming the next big environmental challenge. Crudely dumped, buried in landfills, burnt or illegally exported to developing countries, the toxic effects of e-waste have already begun to raise concerns.

What Is Electronic Waste?

Also called e-waste, electronic waste refers to all discarded electrical and electronic appliances and equipment. Statistics reveal that the world has produced at least 50 million tons of e-waste in 2018 alone.
 
 As environmental defenders and policymakers are busy finding ways to save the planet from environmental degradation, this toxic waste has slowly and quietly grown to alarming levels. The life span of electronics has also decreased, which has caused the waste levels to shoot up.

‘Right to Repair’ Movement

Some environmental organizations point fingers at tech companies and say they intentionally manufacture products designed to have short lifespans so the consumer has to purchase a newer version of the product. Activist organizations like the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) have started a “right to repair movement” demanding products are made to last.
 
 “Manufacturers are making it increasingly difficult and expensive to repair our electronic gadgets and replace key parts like a cracked screen or a weak battery… By reducing the lifespan of a product they may drive sales, but this comes at the expense of citizens and the planet,” says the EEB’s website.
 
 They also make the breakdown seem irreparable or so expensive to repair that the customer ends up buying a new product. A CBC Canada news investigation went undercover and recorded Apple technicians telling consumers a repair for their computer would cost $1200 — a repair that was later fixed at an independent repair shop by simply bending a pin back into place. That vendor said to bend the pin he wouldn’t charge a customer anything, but to replace the pin he would charge $75 to $150.
 
 Apple also recently admitted to pushing software updates that slowed down older iPhones to improve battery performance every time a newer model was announced.
 
 The costly expense of repairing many electronics has developed a throwaway culture where people just throw away appliances once they break down rather than fixing them. Others will just throw them away because a newer model with more enticing features has been released into the market. With no knowledge of how to properly dispose of these appliances, they just dump them, and this has led to a toxic pile of electronic waste.
 
 “E-waste is the next big environmental challenge in today’s digital society, a time bomb waiting to explode,” says Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, an officer with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “As recyclers struggle to deal with the growing amount of waste, our smartphones and white goods are buried in landfills or illegally exported to developing countries where they’re often treated in informal or dangerous conditions,” he added.

The Harmful Effects of Electronic Waste

E-waste has negative effects on human health, animal life and the environment. To humans, it has the potential to cause respiratory diseases, affect the brain, kidneys, heart, liver and even the nervous and reproductive systems.
 
According to the United Nations, electronics with batteries or plugs such as mobile phones, laptops, TVs, fridges, electrical toys, etc. contain toxic chemicals such as lithium, mercury, lead, etc. which, if improperly disposed, can leak into the environment. Such chemicals are carcinogenic to humans.

In the U.S., e-waste is not only the fastest growing stream of waste but also makes up 70 percent of all toxic waste in landfills all over the country. Sometimes e-waste is burnt, an unsafe method of disposal because it releases toxic gases into the air that can cause respiratory diseases.

Crude disposal of electronic waste also affects waterways and can polluts the water meant for animal or human consumption. A recent study revealed marine life is fast dwindling due to ocean pollution.

Fighting For the Right to Repair

To help promote awareness of the threat of electronic waste, a group of environmentalists started the first ever International E-Waste Day which was held on October 13, 2018.
 
At least 18 states across the country have introduced “Right to Repair” legislation which would require electronics manufacturers to provide independent repair shops with diagnostic equipment and replacement parts to be able to service their products.
 
“The bill is critical to protect independent repair shops and a competitive market for repair, which means better service and lower prices. It also helps preserve the right of individual device owners to understand and fix their own property,” Kit Walsh, Senior Staff Attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a press release about the California Right to Repair bill. “We should encourage people to take things apart and learn from them. After all, that’s how many of today’s most successful innovators got started.”