Impact of E-waste on life: Treasure or Threat

Simran Kaur and Varinderjit Kaur* P.G. Department of Physics, G.S.S.D.G.S. Khalsa College Patiala, Punjab

2021-07-19 17:17:05

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E-waste hasn’t been around for a very long time yet the amount of it has escalated quickly. The devices that humans simply discard because they are no longer “useful” can actually cause more harm than expected. This creates an alarming situation particularly in developing countries like India. This article revolves around the basic composition and effects of E-waste with major emphasis on the composition of radioactive materials in E-waste. It also provides an overview of current scenarios in E-waste management and its impact on human health and environment. In the end of this article, few practical suggestions have been made to help government to curb the E-waste.

The technological advancement that is substantially helping humankind comes at a cost. This cost hinders the sustainable development of society as well as possess a threat to environment. Electronic waste (E-waste) plays a major role in this hindrance. Short for electronic and electrical waste, E-waste has become a rapidly growing trend in the domain of environmental pollution. Generally, it in-corporates everything that uses electricity in one way or other and can also be termed as Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) 1.

E-waste is the most rapid growing waste type that includes discarded electronic and electrical materials like mobile phones, laptops, computers, speakers, keyboards, power supply, medical equipment etc. With the acceleration of the cut throat race of launching new products, E-waste production accelerates too. While E-waste includes plethora of toxic materials, this fact cannot be neglected that the same E-waste is a source of many precious metals. But most importantly, E-waste also includes radioactive materials that are an important yet damaging part of E-waste. E-waste containing radioactive materials is also called Radioactive Waste (RW). So, basically radioactive waste is a material that contains radionuclide at concentrations greater than a certain safe level. Depending on the quantity of radionuclide in RW, it can be classified into 3 categories: (i) Low level waste (ii) Intermediate level waste (iii) High level waste. Also, on the basis of radioactive elements present in E-waste, RW can be classified into two categories depending on their half lives (i) Short lived RW having half-life less than 30 years (ii) Long lived RW having half-life greater than 30 years.

Radioactive composition of E-waste is not new but is still an under-discussed topic. To understand the depth of the above-mentioned points, this article delivers a simpler approach that constructively leads to the radioactive composition of E-waste and the risks it carries with itself. This reflects the urgent need to consider E-waste as a pressing issue.

Global significance of E-waste

In the 20th century, the world had barely seen compact electrical and electronic devices, but as the world welcomed a new century, global E-waste faced huge rate of production. As the Socio-Economic growth of developed countries exponentiated, a significant rise occurred in the generation of E-waste. According to UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020, 53.6 million metric tonnes of E-waste was generated in 2019 around the globe, out of which, 3.2 million tonne was generated by India only. Out of the 53.6 million tonnes, only 17.4% was recycled. The amount of E-waste generated is ironic. For a population of more than 7 billion, there are only 5.5 billion toilets around the globe. However, the number of mobile phones operating in 2020 was 14.02 billion. In 2020, E-waste from Mobile phones was expected to increase 20-fold.

Process and Classification of E-waste

According to the definition by Directive (2012/19/EU), ‘Waste electrical and electronic equipment or WEEE means electrical or electronic equipment which is waste within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2008/98/EC, including all components, sub-assemblies and consumables which are part of the product at the time of discarding’. Therefore, Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) with a power cord or a battery changes into WEEE if the owner throws it away. But if the owner decides to repair and reuse it, WEEE becomes EEE again. Figure 1 represents a flowchart showing the process of EEE becoming WEEE. The owner either discards the EEE or re-uses it or sells it, depending on its output and functioning. After getting dumped, it can either be re-used through re-furbishing, or can be recycled. In some scenarios, it can directly be disposed off.

                                            Fig: 2

Figure 2 represents the basic classification of E-waste based on their sources of generation2. This pie-chart depicts that the major amount of E-waste is generated from house-hold appliances and from IT and Telecom sector. With such a huge amount of generation of E-waste, it is obvious to ask the reason behind these numbers. Predictably, life time of appliances plays the lead role here. When an EEE reaches End-Of-Life (EOL), it starts either malfunctioning or stops working at all. This causes items with less average life to be created more in number which eventually creates more E-waste.

Composition of E-waste

Electronic waste is heterogeneous and complex in terms of composition. EEE has several components which are some types of micro-electronics themselves. These micro-components are designed on a very small scale to be embedded in a large number on the EEE, thus making production of more EEE easier. Ironically, unlike the production of new EEE, the same care is not given to the discarded ones, which ultimately leads to direct or indirect exposure to harmful substances. Nonetheless, the toxic, precious and radioactive components play a crucial role in the working of device.

  • Toxic components in E-waste

Majority of E-waste comprises of metals, plastics and ceramics. Where on one hand, the recycling process can give back the heavy metals; it also causes the emission of hazardous pollutants. Unsafe practices like burning and incineration can emit toxic fumes, which is zero to being helpful.  Major E-waste toxicants include Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), Dioxins and toxic metals like mercury, chromium, cadmium, lithium, barium, zinc, nickel etc.  Usually, these pollutants follow some common route of exposure- Inhalation, Ingestion, Dermal contact or Transplacental. This tremendous amount of E-waste not only adds to pollution but also emit toxic fumes that harm living being to death.

  • Radioactive composition of E-waste

Radioactive elements play a major role in the theme of this article. As most of the consumers are unaware of the presence of these types of materials, it ultimately becomes even more crucial to spread awareness about it and look for safety measures too. Radioactive element Lead (Pb) is the lead player in this field. Found in printed circuit boards (PCB), cathode ray tubes, TVs, soldering wires, batteries and light bulbs, this element is present in the amount of 1.12 kg in a monitor7. Typical concentration of Lead in E-waste is 2900 mg/kg, being globally emitted in 58000 tonnes3. But amount is not the only factor that should be considered. The very nature of Lead is dangerous. Although, it is a stable element, some of its isotopes are truly unstable, with 214Pb having a half-life of 26.8 minutes. 210Pb having a half-life of 22.3 years takes years to decay. Because of lead poisoning, lead water pipes have been prohibited in USA since 1974. Even a tiny amount of lead is a complete neurotoxin in itself. It has little yet significant amount of radioisotope impurities, which when acts on a chain reaction can become an intense emitter of alpha particles. Lead even carries the potential to alter the DNA of living beings.

Smoke detectors are widely used product at homes, buildings, schools etc. These detectors contain Americium-241 which is again a radioactive element.  Although the amount of this isotope present in a single detector is small, but together it can prove to detrimental to environment. If inhaled or eaten, the effect becomes serious and notable. Its half-life is 432.2 years, which means it is impossible for a single generation of mankind to overpower its effect. As mentioned in earlier section, ceramic is a widely used material in electronics. It is utilised to insulate plugs, tubes, wires etc. However, it may contain high levels of naturally-occurring Uranium, Thorium and Potassium, which is present significantly in older dishware.

Last but not the least is the radioactive elements present in medical instrumentation. If radiotherapy and other medical instruments are not disposed properly, the elements present in them can give hazardous result. Number of radioisotopes like Technetium-99,  Carbon-14, Flourine-18, Iodine-131 etc. are used in hospital instruments. But Cobalt-60 has a story linked to it, which reflects its potential to harm living beings. Although it is used in radiotherapy cancer treatment, medical equipment sterilization etc., and its half-life of 5.27 years is not such a concern, yet it can provide serious damage. In 2010, the infamous Mayapuri Radiological accident occurred in Mayapuri, Delhi, India. An irradiator which was sold to a scrap metal dealer was dismantled by some workers, who were unaware of its effects due to radioactive nature. From the 11 fragments of Cobalt-60, one was kept by a person in his wallet, two were taken to a shop and eight pieces were left there only. The radioactivity of Cobalt-60 sickened 8 people, one of which died due to multi-organ failure. There are still many incidents like this, undocumented. A report of China shows that one recycler in China already produces more cobalt by recycling than what the country mines in one year. This raises the alarming need to aware consumers, waste workers and everyone else about the radioactive nature of material present in EEE.

  • Precious metal components in E-waste

By far, we have learnt about the radioactive and other toxic components of WEEE but it composes of precious recoverable and recyclable metals too. Majority of precious metals includes Steel, copper, tin, aluminium, nickel etc. However, quantitatively, metals like mercury and cadmium are present in only a little amount and only traces of gold, barium, titanium, cobalt, palladium, silver, platinum etc. are there.  These precious metals act as a point of attraction in E-waste job sectors because of their market value. For instance, for 2021 Tokyo Olympics, medals are reported to be made from 50,000 tonnes of e-waste that includes old laptops, mobile phones etc. which has proved to be a very good step from social point of view.  

Environmental and Health perspective to E-waste

The major elements used in EEE and the majority of E-waste are supposed to be escorted to India from USA, Europe etc. E-waste when dumped, burned and recycled gives out toxic fumes, whereas the dumping in the pits underground can keep the e-waste “active” for a long time. Nonetheless, dumping e-waste into earth should be strictly ban. Re-cycling also involves burning of pipes, tubes, plastic, where the fumes first go into our lungs and then to the surroundings around. For instance, the separation of elements from various electrical and electronic equipments releases toxic phosphor, which can dissolve to the nearest water source too. Printed board circuits, if discharged directly into natural water resources, can acidify and destroy the flora and fish. They also emit dioxins, beryllium, cadmium and mercury, which can be toxic to every flora and fauna. On burning steel rollers, wires etc. hydrocarbons ashes including Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) discharge to soil, air and water. Obvious enough, burning, dumping and improper disposal lead to air, soil and water pollution. This directly affects the marine as well as wild life. The toxic by-products disturb the natural ecosystem and can even cause habitat loss for the species living there. This can eventually lead to starvation of animals and thus extinction. When non-biodegradable toxicant is dumped into soil, it causes hazardous long-lasting effects and can destroy the soil permanently. For the benefit and pleasure of humankind, humans are destroying the lives of innocent beings existing along with us. These types of impacts on health and environment, whether micro level or macro, demand the need to be decreased and stopped.

Presence of these toxic and radioactive materials such as Lead (Pb), Mercury (Hg), Cadmium (Cd), Nickel (Ni), Barium (Ba), Beryllium (Be) etc. in E-waste have more severe effects on the health too. Exposure to these radioactive materials can damage kidneys, liver, brain and bone structure of the body. They can cause allergic reactions to skin causing asthma4.

Suggestions and Conclusion

The impact WEEE on our lives can’t be ignored. This implies especially to countries like India where amount of E-waste generated is far more than the available land to keep it. However, it is worth noting that population like of India can actually take benefits from E-waste by generating more employment opportunities in the E-waste sector. Along with jobs, government should also look for measures to solve E-waste dilemma.

Indian government should cluster to promote recycling of E-waste. For instance, In Mohali (Punjab), there are telephone and mobile clusters, in Bangalore there are computer clusters and in Noida there are Samsung and LG TV clusters, all implement and promote the reuse of old and damaged devices. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has, too, started the initiative of creating public awareness regarding E-waste’s effects and methods of disposal. With the aim of creating new jobs, MeitY has developed various techniques such as PCB recycling etc. National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) Organisation has also been putting efforts to create a truly inclusive India by starting “10,000 start-ups”. It has the campaign “My Environment My Kartavya” which encourages people to dispose gadgets properly and has also spear-headed the “Big Bridge” program to help IT companies refurbish E-waste. An Australian expert, Prof. Veena Sahajwalla, suggested that setting up micro-factories in India can help transform e-waste into reusable material that can further be converted into ceramics and plastic filaments for 3D printing.

Bulk consumers of EEE should maintain the records of E-waste generated by them and make such records available for scrutiny by concerned State Pollution Central Board. Consumers and bulk consumers of EEE must ensure that E-waste is channelized through collection centres or authorised dealers.

Radioactivity of materials in E-waste should also be given priority as some radioactive materials possess zero to little threat (half-life of Cobalt-60 is 5.27 years) but some are highly fatal (half-life of Americium-241 is 432.2 years). Lead, which is the main component of solders and is extremely useful in EEE, has an isotope lead-205 with a half-life of 1.73 x 107 years and that of lead-202 is 52500 years. It must be ensured that such End-Of-Life EEEs are not admixed with E-waste containing radioactive material. We suggest the creation of colour coded PCBs, ICs and other EEEs to aware everyone about their radioactivity, which will ensure proper disposal and recycling. If proper actions are taken, then the E-waste production can be moderated.


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