As a college student, I have been through quite a large amount of various forms of technology from headphones to new cell phones and laptops. Every few years it seems something needs to be replaced, switched out or upgraded. Within the college community of UC Berkeley alone, there are over 45,000 students, each equipped with their own electronics they rely on to successfully participate in academic life.
In the United States, there are over 900 public universities, each with their own population of students who have electronic devices. Thinking about the immensity of electronic usage is almost overwhelming; emails, papers, texts being drafted day in and day out. Whether in school or in your career, everyone has relied on some form of technology in their life either directly or indirectly.
I first started using computers in academia supplied by elementary school, which then evolved into computer science classes and labs where you learn the basics of computer mechanics. I can’t help but recall what may have happened to these older computers, now that we have moved on to much more advanced devices. Electronic waste isn’t discussed much in the media or academia, but is just another form of waste that we as humans generate.
Electronic waste is defined simply as the action of discarding electronic waste, which can range from telephones, freezers, and TVs to vending machines, LED bulbs and A/C units. When e-waste is left in the environment, heat that hits these materials exposes toxic chemicals to the surrounding area, which can then seep into the soil and groundwater. This then affects plants that rely on soil health to grow successfully and the animals that rely on plant material for energy. Not only can e-waste be detrimental, but it can also contribute to air pollution through the release of toxins like lead, mercury and cadmium.
At UC Berkeley, my physics class used old computers and cameras to take videos during our lab section. Like the technology used in my elementary school classes, I wonder where these devices go once they have been discarded or how they will be replaced. After some research, I have learned that, unfortunately, a portion of e-waste gets burned, releasing toxins into the atmosphere. The other portion gets shipped to developing countries, including Mexico, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, to name a few. Numbers on this are still in dispute, with the United Nations noting that the US exports 10-40% to other countries while the International Trade Commission notes its only 0.13%.
Before tossing your e-waste into the trash, there are a few quick solutions you can take to avoid contributing to the growing mass of electronic waste. Selling the technology online, passing it along to friends or family or donating to a school are some fast ways to dispose of your waste. Most manufacturers will also take back the electronics, Apple, Lenovo and Dell are a few examples. Best Buy, Staples and Office Max also take drop offs at their in person locations.
For fellow Berkeley students, at the end of the year there are also e-waste donation drop offs, so if you are local to the area you can contribute to these drives. Electronic waste is often overlooked, but it is important to remember that there are ways to recycle this in a semi-sustainable way to protect the environment from harm. This quick fix can have a lasting impact for the health of the environment and population.