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The Dark Side of Smart Technology: The Truth About E-Waste
A perspective from Bianca Gawka
As of 2013, the United Nations has found more people have access to smartphones than they do to toilets. Globally, the use of smart technology has increased drastically in recent years. This new issue has made the goal to reduce, reuse, and recycle much trickier. But what is E-waste, what makes it so dangerous, and what’s being done to prevent it?
E-Waste is old technology like personal computers, cell phones, or dead batteries. Typically, people assume that it’s safe to throw away electronic waste like any other garbage we may accumulate. Though, electronic waste leads to different hazards from regular trash. This includes source depletion, health risks, and environmental pollution.
For example, take the tiny gold chip in an iPhone. Obtaining this chip can be traced back to gold mines in countries overseas such as Ghana and Tanzania in Africa. The heavy-duty mining process causes soil erosion and air pollution from industrial machinery, like combustion machines. Technology can also include heavy metals like lead, mercury, and nickel. Without proper disposal, these metals can leak toxins that end up in our soil and water sources. This can cause a variety of health risks such as brain damage, kidney damage, and developmental defects in children.
The consequences of environmental waste are detrimental, but with modern lifestyles revolving around technology, getting rid of it altogether is out of the picture. There is no clear solution, but properly disposing of e-waste is the first step. Though not many people know how to do this. Taking a look into the Triangle region of North Carolina, we can see what the town of Chapel Hill has done in response to electronic waste.
For many students at the University of Chapel Hill, the Student Union is a staple for studying, eating, or collaborating with peers. Walking through the halls, you’ll notice there’s something unique about the recycling bins. There’s a separate disposal bin labeled “E-WASTE.” The UNC Finance and Operations website tells you what you can recycle in these bins and how to recycle it. Now that there’s some local insight on how to begin recycling e-waste in the town of Chapel Hill, the bigger question is: Where does it really go?
Clicking through every single item on the webpage, there is no real explanation as to where electronic waste is actually broken down and recycled. One similarity between all electronic devices collected by UNC is that they’re taken to an off-campus facility called University Surplus. This store sells and repurposes electronic waste but doesn’t actually recycle it. The question of where it ends up is still left unanswered.
To the average technology consumer, it’s safe to assume that there are measures in how electronic waste should be discarded. Though there is no easy way for most people to see that it actually is properly managed. When presenting the term “recycling,” a plastic bottle or a soda can comes to mind, and electronic waste is overlooked. The lack of awareness makes it difficult to prevent the environmental and health consequences of improper disposal, but it may come to the benefit of some.
Technology companies, equipment manufacturers, and waste management facilities responsible for this electronic waste don’t want you to think as far as to how things are broken down. Even more so, they don’t want you to wonder why there is no straight answer. Though these companies won’t hesitate to reassure you that everything eventually ends up where it needs to be, masking the illegal dumping with the word “recycling.” There is a false sense of security for the consumer when they choose to recycle.
There are many methods of recycling provided by the University of Chapel Hill. Unfortunately, once the waste is out of local hands, very few know where it really goes, how it’s broken down, and if it’s disposed of in a sustainable way. As a student at UNC, spreading awareness through recycling programs, clubs, and workshops among students at the University is an easy approach to begin fixing the issue. While we can do a lot on our end, we can only do so much.
Trying to figure out where e-waste goes and if it’s properly broken down is not easy for the consumer. There is corporate corruption in cheap, easy, and efficient waste dumping, which all lies in the hands of industry. This is a dirty business that makes the waters murky. The lack of public awareness has led to little to no activism around preventing the harm that comes from dumping electronic waste. What goes on in the background of electronic waste disposal makes proposing solutions a difficult process. Though asking questions and demanding answers is something we have control over to start lessening the detrimental repercussions of e-waste.
“Viewpoints” on Chapelboro is a recurring series of community-submitted opinion columns. All thoughts, ideas, opinions and expressions in this series are those of the author, and do not reflect the work or reporting of 97.9 The Hill and Chapelboro.com.