Electronic Waste

Electronic Waste as a Derivative of Affluence and Consumerism: How Electronic Waste Came to Be an Issue and How the Handling Solutions Affect the Environment and the Economy.

This essay was written by Dan Pastori as a final paper for English 102 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwuakee

Over the last century, our society as a whole has been growing increasingly more dependent on material possessions, feeling the need to buy more items, especially electronic items, to try and stay up-to-date in our technological revolution. The never-ending need for more possessions has created a term, “Affluenza” which is a slang way of combining the word for the illness “influenza” with the word “Affluence”, an abundance of property (Merriam-Webster). Affluenza is unofficially defined in the book, Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic, as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more” (Affluenza pg. 3). Essentially, Affluenza is a theoretical disease that has infected society, making its victims susceptible to advertising and giving into the consumerism ideals that they need more and more material goods. The problem with this “constant need for more” is the amount of waste produced when the products are discarded. The waste created by electronics is especially harmful to the environment and is one of the world's fastest-growing waste-related issues. Greenpeace states that “In many countries it's the fastest growing type of waste as cheap prices mean replacing electronics is cheaper than fixing them, while low price often means low quality and a very short life spans” (Greenpeace). Electronic waste is the material that makes up the inner workings of cell phones, radios, computers, or any other electronic device, hidden beneath the fancy plastic shell. The problem of electronic waste (e-waste) comes from people's seemingly unlimited wants and the fact that electronics have become a bigger part of everyday life. Since people keep wanting more, and electronics have become a bigger part of our lives, people purchase more electronic devices. More electronic devices means more electronic waste is produced. As a society, we need to properly dispose of our electronic devices, by realizing the hazards these devices can bring to our health and environment, and develop and adopt solutions to prevent the devices from filling our landfills. These facts generate the main focus of this essay, how electronic waste is a derivative of affluence and consumerism, and what we can do to develop solutions with respect to the environment and the economy. Electronic waste comes in many forms, like cell phones, computers, radios, and other electronics. Any device that contains electronic components is considered to be electronic waste once it has been discarded. Many people don't see what makes up the waste because, electronic waste is usually what is inside the plastic or metal shell of the electronic device. Despite the dangers of electronic waste not being visible to the naked eye, electronic waste has many dangers to our health and environment. The chemicals that make up the electronic components of the devices are what make these devices dangerous to the environment and the living species in the environment where they are improperly recycled. In Jessika Toothman's article on “How E-waste Works” from the website Howstuffworks.com, she states that “E-waste dangers stem from ingredients such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, beryllium, barium, chromium, nickel, zinc, silver and gold. Many of these elements are used in circuit boards and comprise electrical parts such as computer chips, monitors and wiring. Also, many electrical products include various flame-retardant chemicals that might pose potential health risks”(Toothman). Toothman explains that this statement, comes from research collected by the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Research Program. When improperly recycled, these chemicals get released into the environment and can affect all living species. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Mercury, at high exposures, may cause “kidney effects, respiratory failure, and death” (EPA), lead can cause “nerve disorders, high blood pressure, muscle and joint pain, and memory and concentration problems”(EPA), and arsenic can cause “lower birth weight and lung cancer” (EPA). These are a few examples of the potential dangers that the chemicals released from improperly handled electronic waste can pose to the environment. Figure 1 is a table presented in the book Waste Treatment by Anne Maczulak, that displays the materials of concern in e-waste and how they effect humans and the environment. These harmful materials have already started to make their way into the environment. Geofeng Zhao, Huaidong Zhou, and Zijan Wang performed a study to “estimate the total daily dietary intakes of the five heavy metals, As [Arsenic], Cd [Cadmium], Cr [Chromium], Hg [Mercury], and Pb [Lead] for the residents living in five villages located in the Zhejiang province of China” (Zhao, Zhou, Wang). Their results show that the “ highest dietary intakes of the five heavy metals were all observed in the four e-waste dis-assembly localities” (Zhao, Zhou, Wang). The evidence presented through this research, shows that the dangerous materials already threaten humans with disease and death.

Materials of Concern in E-Waste



Effect on Human or Ecosystem Health

Nonhazardous metals, plastic shells, screens, cables

Excess non-degradable bulk in landfills

Loss of habitat for landfill


Bromine-containing flame retardants

Bioaccumulation in human and wildlife tissue

Contacts, switches, and batteries

Cadmium and nickel

Cadmium toxicity in plants, wildlife, and humans; nickel allergies in humans

Metal housings and joints

Hexavalent chromium corrosion protector

Toxicity in liver and kidneys; potentially carcinogenic

Circuit boards and cathode ray tubes


Toxic to animal nervous systems; toxic to plants

Flat screen displays


Highly toxic compounds accumulate in food chains

Wires and cables

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Incineration creates toxic dioxins and furans

Springs, relays, connectors, motherboards


Beryllium dusts are highly toxic to humans when inhaled.

Fig. 1. Displayed are some of the materials of concern found in electronic waste and specifically which electronic component of the waste is a hazard. Also displayed is how the material affects the environment and human health. Source: Waste Treatment: Reducing Global Waste by Anne Maczulak PH.D

Improper handling of electronic waste consists mainly of open-air burning of the devices. In third world countries, piles of electronic devices get burned to harvest the precious metals inside, such as gold and silver. Once the electronic waste has been handled improperly, the dangerous substances begin to pose a threat to the environment and our health through processes like bioaccumulation and biomagnification. The United States Geological Survey defines bioaccumulation as “a general term for the accumulation of substances, such as pesticides, methylmercury, or other organic chemicals in an organism or part of an organism” (USGS). The dangerous chemicals of electronic waste bioaccumulate from being consumed implicitly (usually from being in small doses on normally consumed food) by organisms living in the areas that don't recycle electronic waste properly. The accumulation comes from the fact that the heavy metals present in electronic devices don't break down easily, so they stay in the organism's system for a lot longer than other chemicals, accumulating over time. The bioaccumulation process can kick off a process called biomagnification, which can dangerously affect humans. Biomagnification defined by the United States Geological Survey is “the bioaccumulation of a substance up the food chain by transfer of residues of the substance in smaller organisms that are food for larger organisms in the chain” (USGS). This means the smaller organisms, which consume the dangerous chemicals that don't break down, work their way up the food chain until we consume the chemicals indirectly. Since the dangerous chemicals, especially the heavy metals, don't break down easily, they stay present throughout the food chain, eventually reaching humans, potentially causing disease or death.

The production of electronic wastes stems from people's artificial “need” to have the most up-to-date, fastest electronic device available, or have multiple copies of devices that can perform the same function, creating an “electronic affluence” or “abundance of electronics.” Stated earlier, affluence is an “abundance of wealth” (Merriam-Webster). In today's society, wealth usually refers to material possessions, so electronic affluence would be an abundance of electronics. The slang term, Affluenza, can be used to describe the pseudo-epidemic sweeping the country, where the side effects are uncontrollable spending and amounting credit card debt. A prime example taken from the book Affluenza is the fact that there are “more cars [in America] than registered drivers” while at the same time, “every 15 seconds someone in America files for bankruptcy, half of which are from reckless spending” (Affluenza pg. 20). This example illustrates the over-spending nature of Americans. If so many people are buying multiple cars, and at the same time people are filing for bankruptcy with the majority of the claims coming from over-spending, there are some habits that need to be broken. A car is just one example of a good that people purchase, a very expensive good. This spending trait trickles down to all items that people purchase. “In 1999, according to the National Retail Foundation, Americans spent nearly $200 billion on holiday gifts, more than $850 per customer” (Affluenza pg 13). This kind of spending habit produces massive amounts of garbage, like 130,000,000 cell phones and 50,000,000 computers every year (Maczulak), most of these get dumped into a landfill before the lifespan of the product has been reached.

Another term, less slang than “Affluenza”, but used to describe the over-consuming nature of the people in the world is “consumerism.” Consumerism is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable” (Merriam-Webster Online). It is true that the more people spend on goods and services, the more the country's GDP increases. According to textbook, Foundations of Macroeconomics, by Bade and Parkin, the economic growth rate is defined as “ the annual percentage change of real GDP” (Bade and Parkin 214). To narrow down the source further, GDP is defined as, “the market value of all the final goods and services produced within a country in a given time period” (Bade and Parkin 114). The connection between spending and economic growth is revealed between these two definitions. If consumers keep spending more throughout given time periods, the companies that produce the goods and services will produce more of the goods and services that people consume resulting in an increase in GDP , indicating economic growth. With the desire to increase our economy, the spending ideals encouraged by corporations, politicians, and peers, help our economy to boom while our personal finances suffer. Corporations encourage massive spending habits to boost profits, build capital, and produce more goods. Politicians encourage over-consuming spending habits to show that the economy is growing. These habits are encouraged while they are in office, so their approval will increase because they apparently made the economy increase. Our peers indirectly influence our spending habits by showing off what they have just purchased. This kind of idea is where the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” comes from. People tend to rate their level of success based on what they have compared to what others have. This kind of mindset can lead to serious financial hardships, especially in the day of credit cards. With credit cards, people seem to think they can buy now and pay later. This mindset is fine when people actually have the money to pay for the item later, but sadly this is not the case and results in people spending money that they don't have.

One of the greatest sources of influence on spending habits is corporate advertising. The corporations try to push their product or service upon us by trying to make the customer need something they don't. “The Gospel of Consumption” by Jeffrey Kaplan explains how people came to wanting more than they need, starting with the way people spent their money in the early 20th century up until today. He also incorporates the corporate mindset behind making the consumer “need” something they don't. The time frame that Kaplan starts with in his article ranges from pre-Great Depression, around 1920, when electricity was for the rich and private cars were rare.

“But, despite the apparent tidal wave of new consumer goods and what appeared to be a healthy appetite for their consumption among the well-to-do, industrialists were worried. They feared that the frugal habits maintained by most American families would be difficult to break. Perhaps even more threatening was the fact that the industrial capacity for turning out goods seemed to be increasing at a pace greater than people's sense that they needed them” (Kaplan).

This idea that Kaplan presents, regarding the fact that the industries could produce more than the people could consume, kicked off the advertising campaign to make wants and to cause more consumer spending. New technological advancements were changing the way products were produced, during the early part of the 20th century and affected how people lived their lives. However these developments were pushed by people's wants for more. People in the pre-Great Depression era didn't want as much as the capabilities of production provided. The American people were frugal with their money. This mindset inspired Charles Kettering, director of General Motors Research, to write a magazine article in 1929, called “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied” (Kaplan). Kaplan explains that the article written “wasn't suggesting that manufacturers produce shoddy products”, but “was defining a strategic shift for American industry-from fulfilling basic human needs to creating new ones” (Kaplan). The idea of creating human needs is still prevalent today. Corporations such as Apple produce products like the iPhone, which people purchase thinking it has everything they would ever need, only to have a new feature released on the next model that they think they can't live without. In Apple's eyes, they aren't creating shoddy products to enhance the lives of the consumers.

However, Apple's opinion of creating a new and better product has turned against them in some other people's opinions. Dave Connell, a Nature Conservancy green tech blogger presents his opinion against Apple and Google products, specifically the mobile phone market, a huge producer of e-waste. In his article, “Apple and Google, set to bring the (e)Waste” he states that,

“the devices that these two companies [Apple and Google] are pouring money into (and that Microsoft is desperately trying to keep up with) are inherently disposable:

  • They are small, cheap, and ultraportable;
  • They have limited storage capacity-meaning you'll store most of your data on the web;
  • They have limited battery life.

Combine all these things, and you have products that will end up in the waste stream as soon as they are no longer shiny and new” (Connell).

Dave Connell takes aim at the fact of the disposable nature of the cell phones that Apple and companies affiliated with Google (such as HTC) produce. The limited lives of these products increase spending among the population dramatically. A prime example of the limited life span of these products is the fact that they have limited battery life. Dave Connell lists this as one of the reasons why these devices are disposable. Say one purchases an iPhone with their new cell phone plan. In the best-case scenario, they could afford the item at the time of purchase. However, the battery wears down the second that the iPhone is put into use, and the iPhone does not allow the purchaser to change the battery. According to PCWorld, the iPhone 3G, after being run through their standard talk-time battery life test, found that on average the life on a single charge was 5 hours, 38 minutes (PCWorld). According to CIO.com, a site meant for information officers and IT leaders, one would “typically get 250 to 500 charge cycles before the lithium ion battery has outlived its usefulness” (CIO). If the two statistics are combined, the average life of an iPhone 3G is from 1,407 hours to 2,185 hours. However, this only represents using the phone for talking and recharging the battery when needed. Internet and other media drain the battery at a faster rate, and charging the battery before it has been completely drained wears down the battery at a faster rate. In any case, once the battery is dead, if the phone is out of warranty, it costs $85.95 per unit to get the battery replaced by Apple (Apple). After living with the phone and having its features be part of a lifestyle for so long, many hand over the $85.95 to get the battery replaced, or in the worst financial case, go and buy a new iPhone for around $300.00. Once this replacement happens, e-waste is produced. The phones are disposable, and many people don't think about where they go when they are completely dead.

The modern spending habits, consumerism ideals, and mindset of affluence increase the amount of electronic waste produced each year. The iPhone example represents a single phone in the mobile phone market. A lot of people purchase these phones with no idea on what they will do with them when they die. A lot of people trade them in or just throw them away once they don't need them anymore. Throwing away any electronic device is harmful to the environment. People convince themselves that they need to have a lot of devices to fill the void in their lives. Sadly, when people's devices die or become useless to them, most people will just throw their devices away, instead of paying the small fee to fix them up or donating them to someone else who could use the device until it has become completely dead. Computers are a prime example of devices that usually have a lot of life left in them when they are disposed of. Their modular nature also makes them easy to fix up and give to others, or re-purpose. Richard Morrison, a writer for the Times Online, gives an example of taking his four-year-old laptop to get serviced, and the man working at the computer store explained how the laptop would be worthless to fix and stated, “in this business, anything older than 18 months is obsolete” (Morrison). The idea that after 18 months the computer is obsolete and can't be fixed up is a fallacy that produces e-waste. In my personal experience, I have fixed up 10-year-old computers for people, which run just fine for the purposes that they use the computers for. The fact that 10-year-old computers can function for families that use them for normal, everyday uses like word processing and internet browsing, proves that computers are not obsolete 18 months after they are purchased. Morrison also brings to light the question, “Does anybody buy a car, a washing machine, even a toaster, in the expectation that it will last a decade? As for computers, mobile phones, iPods and all the other electronic paraphernalia of our gizmo-fixated age, well, the philosophy among manufacturers seems to be that since punters will surely want to 'upgrade' every 12 months, there's no reason, let alone obligation, to make products that last any longer” (Morrison). The last statement about people (punters) wanting to upgrade their devices every 12 months is what leads to the downward spiral of shoddy products and increased electronic waste. The companies that produce electronic products embrace and support the idea of upgrading every 12 months. Their sales will increase, and the economy will boom but it will be at the expense of the consumer's finances. This mindset will also allow the companies to produce cheaper, lower-quality products and get away with it because most consumers won't keep their product until it reaches its full life span, once again saving corporate funds. However, most of the time, especially with computers, the devices can be fixed and upgraded without purchasing a new device, even in Richard Morrison's case with his 4-year-old laptop. Computers are an easy example, because their modular nature makes them easy to upgrade without purchasing a new one. In fact for most people's purposes, simple upgrades can enhance their computing experience. Most people believe that since their computer is getting “slow,” the computer itself is getting old, and that after 18 months, it is obsolete. The computer may slow down in the perspective of a “power user”, like a graphic designer, gamer or video editor, who consistently needs the newest most advanced software. However, these users tend to know what they need to make their computer perform at the level that they need. The average user, who uses their computer simply for typing documents, surfing the Internet, or playing music, can extend the life of their computer up to 10 years with simple upgrades along the way. However, many users discard their computer every few years without realizing they can upgrade cheaply and save the computer from a landfill. According to Anne Maczulak, “Americans discard around 130,000,000 cell phones and 50,000,000 computers each year” (Maczulak). The idea of upgrading is inviting to those who like the idea of having the most technologically advanced electronics on the market. However, even those who enjoy the new technology should take a step back and look at what they actually use the device for. To a lot of people, purchasing a new electronic good is inviting and is often the easiest route, but some people can save money and the environment by finding a way to fix their current electronic product and researching if it can perform the function that they wish or finding another person that could use the product. Solutions need to be put into place to deal with the over-consuming nature of our world and make sure electronic waste is reduced by getting the full life time out of our electronic products.

Electronic waste has a definite correlation with people's “new-found” needs. The more people feel the need to buy, buy, buy, the more “aged” electronics end up in the dump, harming the environment and all living species. The so-called recycling solution that brought electronic waste to the attention of many environmental organizations and politicians is the solution that is not even recycling. The “solution” involves shipping electronic waste to countries with low environmental regulations, where it is burned and the precious metals are harvested. Most of the time, the companies that utilize the burning method to dispose of their products are not the manufacturers of the products, but third- party recyclers. Recently, governments and other organizations like one in Tondo, Manilla, Philippines, are cracking down on electronic waste transportation and handling. An excerpt from the article “Hazards of Electronic Waste Disposal Cited” from the Manila Bulletin reads:

“a dumpsite investigation at the Pier 18 garbage transfer station in Tondo, Manila, the Ecological Waste Coalition (EcoWaste) said it found waste reclaimers searching for valuable recyclable materials from end-of-life linear and compact fluorescent lamps, computer circuit boards and other discarded electrical and electronic items, oblivious to the chemical hazards they pose.

'Our investigation confirms the apparent lack of regulation and system that will curb the improper disposal of e-wastes and the perilous recycling taking place in dumpsites and junkshops” (Manilla).

The EcoWaste group is one of the many groups trying to stop the mishandling of electronic waste. They are also taking action, like in Tondo, Manila. When electronic waste is handled improperly, the effects can be devastating, because all the toxins from the electronics are released into the atmosphere or onto the land. Usually this process is done in third world countries, such as China and India. Most of the people who take part in this process don't wear respiratory protection. The fumes from the process affect all parts of the human body, and the by-products can harm the environment. Illustration 1 is a picture of a man who is burning electronic wastes without regard to his body or the environment. As mentioned in the caption, the leftover acids get dumped into the river, further harming the environment. However there are proposed government bans on the situation, making improper handling of e-waste harder to do. The European Union already has regulations regarding e-waste transfer and disposal, in place and President Barack Obama “expressed support for federal laws regulating electronic-waste disposal and reducing the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing products. 'We can also challenge manufacturers of computers, printers and other electronic equipment to more effectively take back these products when they are discarded so that their components can be reused rather than shipped to landfills'” (Harbert). The government's plan helps eliminate e-waste on a national level and can even support the economy in a different fashion. These environmental regulations can increase business in the e-waste recycling sector. However, instead of at the cost of the consumers, it would be at the cost of the corporations that need to do the recycling.