E-Waste Is Engulfing Us 

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When you were shopping for your last computer or phone, did you wonder how it would taste, or maybe if you would be breathing it in because it ended up in your air? Not many people do.

According to EPA studies, more than 80 percent of discarded electronics end up in landfills and incinerators around the country and the world. In the Salt Lake Valley, the Trans-Jordan landfill is right outside the city limits, meaning that toxic chemicals like cadmium, mercury, barium and lead from improperly disposed of “e-waste” can end up leaching into our local water tables and streams. Despite regulations against disposing of e-waste in landfills and incinerators, many are still throwing away their old electronics due to lack of knowledge and convenient recycling options.

Developing countries are seeing the staggering and stifling effects of the e-waste. Up to 17.7 percent of our old electronics are sold to exporters and end up in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, China and India, where these obsolete items are stripped and burned for their precious metals. The reclamation process contributes to myriad health problems from nervous-system failure to lung degradation and exponentially increasing rates of cancer. Human effects aside, the brominated flame retardants and heavy metals found in the smoke from incinerators pollute the surrounding environment.

Due to a lack of budget and enforcement, electronic waste disposal in Utah is not monitored efficiently, leaving the job of proper e-waste recycling up to the citizens themselves. Due to the growth of the consumer electronics industry, we will be dealing with e-waste for a long time. The average person replaces his or her personal computer every two years, along with other various electronic items. If there is no change, where will we be in 20 years? You do the math.

According to EPA studies, an estimated 3 million tons of e-waste was disposed of by the end of 2008 in the United States alone, and that number increased to around 5 million tons by the end of 2011. Yet only around 20 percent of America’s e-waste is recycled every year, which means e-waste is making its way into our landfills.

The amount of hazardous chemicals in our landfills and eventually our precious streams, rivers and water tables will begin to increase if the public does not become more aware of the situation. This crisis not only affects us now, but also our children and grandchildren if more action is not taken.

With government “take-in” programs and projects like Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s SLCGreen, Utah hopes to be ahead of the curve. Many local businesses are joining the fight against e-waste pollution by pledging to properly recycle and participating in volunteer programs to help educate the public.

To learn more about how to properly recycle electronics, visit the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste website (HazardousWaste.Utah.gov/) or the Electronics Take Back Coalition website (ElectronicsTakeBack.com).

I believe that within the next 10 years, e-waste recycling will be an indispensable industry on par with big oil and health care. With improved production techniques and the use of “greener,” less hazardous, materials in making electronic components, many businesses and leaders are helping to combat the e-waste crisis and save lives. The future now depends on us, the consumers, to take responsibility to educate ourselves and do our part to protect our planet and our legacy.

Salt Lake City

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