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Environmental Facts

For some more information on e-waste environmental facts click on one of the options below to read more on the respective topic.

New Earth Environmental Policy

New Earth is as the leading electronic waste (e-waste) solution supplier in South Africa. Our waste solution complies with all relevant environmental legislation at local, national and international levels as a minimum requirement. We are committed to continuously improving our environmental performance through innovation, controls, resource management and training staff as well as sub-contractors. Our objective is to minimise adverse impacts on the environment and ensure that our customers, by using New Earth’s e-waste solution, are protected from any legal or moral liabilities relating to their waste disposal.

New Earth commits itself to comply with all relevant legislation and other requirements that relate to the company’s daily activities and processes. The company will regularly evaluate the EMS to ensure compliance to all requirements.

An Environmental Management system has been established which complies with the international standard ISO 14001: 2004. This integrates environmental understanding and control into our waste destruction and recycling procedures under the direct control of the senior management team with the support of all employees, suppliers and sub-contractors. Customers are advised as to the best and most cost-effective way of disposing of their waste.

New Earth’s management objectives and targets are reviewed on a quarterly basis to ensure the environmental policy remains current. These objectives and targets are based on the following environmental principles:

  • Prevention of pollution
  • Minimisation of energy and material usage in the destruction/recycling of e-waste
  • Effective and responsible waste management and disposal
  • Promoting reuse and recycling of in-house products
  • Maintaining a high awareness of environmental issues in the company
  • Educating suppliers, sub-contractors and customers on environmental e-waste recycling procedures and requirements

This environmental policy is communicated to all employees and made available to the public via our website: www.ewaste.co.za

The Problem Of Electronic Waste

Most people are not aware of the potential negative impact of the rapidly increasing use of computers, monitors, and televisions in Africa.

When these products are placed in landfills or incinerated, they pose health risks due to the hazardous materials they contain. While relatively small increases are currently occurring in the numbers placed in the municipal waste stream, these products are being purchased at a rapidly increasing rate, and many outdated computers are currently in storage in people’s basements and closets (see Figure 1). If this massive amount of stored electronic waste (e-waste) were to enter the municipal waste stream, the toxins in it could result in severe negative environmental and health impacts. In addition, valuable materials from the computers would be lost due to the lack of effective recycling. E-waste constitutes only 5-8 percent of municipal solid waste, yet it is accumulating at a rate three times that of other solid waste.

Computers and display units contain significant amounts of material that are hazardous to human health if they are not disposed of properly. Monitors and televisions constitute 40% of all lead and 70% of all heavy metals found in landfills. These heavy metals and other toxins that can leach into the soil from landfills, evaporate into the air, and enter the air through incineration.

Toxins in e-waste include polyvinyl chloride (PVC plastics), copper, lead, mercury, arsenic (in older models), cadmium, manganese, cobalt, gold, and iron. Between 1994 and 2003, disposal of PCs resulted in 718,000 tons of lead, 287 tons of mercury, and 1,363 tons of cadmium being placed in landfills. Mercury, chromium, lead, and brominated flame retardants will be discussed here as they are the greatest in quantity and are likely to cause the most adverse health effects in humans. The effect of toxins on the environment will also be considered.
In addition, there is uncertainty about the intensity of the impact of chemicals in e-waste on human health. Toxicology is not an exact science, and there is rarely universal agreement on how a given chemical substance affects human physiology. This disagreement is compounded by the fact that hazard identification tests are often conducted using mice and rats, and then extrapolated to identify human carcinogens and toxins. The physical differences between rodents and humans make it difficult to establish acceptable levels of human exposure based solely on these animal studies. Sometimes limited epidemiological case studies do exist, yet these studies usually provide only limited amounts of additional data. After the toxins and their effects are described, some of the uncertainties related to them are also discussed.

fig1-prob-with-electronic-waste.Figure 1: This figure from the Texas Senate Research Center shows the location of contaminants in a standard home computer.

  1. Lead in cathode ray tubes and solder
  2. Arsenic in older cathode ray tubes
  3. Selenium circuid boards as power supply
  4. Polybrominated flame retardants in plastic castings, cables and circuit boards.
  5. Antimony trioxide as flame retardant.
  6. Cadmium in circuit boards and semi-conductors.
  7. Chrommium in steel as corrosion protection.
  8. Cobalt in steel for structure and magnetivity.
  9. Mercury in switches and housing.
Mercury

The elemental form of mercury evaporates into the atmosphere and precipitates to the ground when it rains. In the soil, it is processed by bacteria and becomes methylmercury. This new form bioaccumulates, meaning it collects in animals’ fatty tissues. It begins collecting at the bottom of the aquatic food chain, and builds up in greater levels the farther up the food chain it goes. Depending on levels of exposure, the methylmercury’s effects can range from mild to severe. People are most often exposed to mercury through food, particularly through eating fish and shellfish. In fact, pregnant women are often advised against eating fish that could potentially contain mercury because of the damage it can do to a developing fetus. Fetuses and small children are most susceptible to mercury toxins, particularly the effects of methylmercury on the nervous system. The primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development, and it can affect cognitive abilities, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and spatial skills. Some symptoms are tremors, emotional changes, insomnia, headaches, disturbances in sensations, changes in nerve responses, and performance deficits on tests of cognitive function. At higher exposures, mercury can cause kidney effects, respiratory failure and death. It is important to stress that methylmercury exposure does not require direct exposure to the source of the mercury; eating fish that were exposed to methylmercury during their developmental stage is sufficient.

Effects of methylmercury exposure on wildlife can include mortality, reduced fertility, slower growth and development and abnormal behavior that effects survival, depending on the level of exposure. In addition, research indicates that the endocrine system of fish may be altered by the levels of methylmercury found in the environment. The endocrine system releases hormones necessary for growth and development, meaning that young fish are unable to develop into healthy adult fish.

Mercury is not listed by the EPA as a human carcinogen. However, the EPA lists existing studies of the human health effects as “inadequate.” Indeed, many scientists believe current permissible levels of mercury exposure are too high. There are also great controversies about mercury related to method of exposure, and what happens to this element once it enters the environment or a landfill

Lead

Lead is one of the most abundant toxic byproducts of e-waste and has many well-documented detrimental human health effects. Exposure to lead can occur from contaminated drinking water and often causes damage to the brain and nervous system. Lead poisoning has the greatest health effect on children, and can cause slowed growth, hearing problems, and behavior and learning problems. In adults, lead can cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure, and memory and concentration problems.

The Environmental effects of lead are just as detrimental. Organisms exposed to lead have a lower chance of reproduction because of behavioral changes or physical disorders from the exposure.

The toxic properties of lead are well-studied, and there is little controversy associated with the toxicity of this element. The EPA states that, “by comparison to most other environmental toxicants, the degree of uncertainty about the health effects of lead is quite low”. It is classified as a probable human carcinogen, which means that there is no safe level of exposure below which negative health consequences may not occur. Lead is one of the most studied of the chemicals in e-waste because of the frequency of exposure and the severe negative health effects in children.

Chromium

Hexavalent chromium, Cr(VI), can damage DNA and has been linked to asthmatic bronchitis. After entering the organism from the environment, chromium is reduced to trivalent chromium, which then binds to proteins. This triggers an immune system reaction that can have damaging effects on the body. All Cr(VI) compounds are potential carcinogens. Health effects associated with Cr(VI) exposure include skin irritation and ulceration, asthma and respiratory irritation, perforated eardrums, kidney damage, liver damage, pulmonary congestion and edema, epigastric (upper abdomen) pain, and erosion and discoloration of the teeth. The lungs, kidneys, and intestines are especially vulnerable, and if chromium lodges in tissues, its long-term action may lead to cancerous growth. In some studies, chromium was reported as one of the factors of incidence of premature senility.

In the environment, chromium can harm aquatic ecosystems, having negative effects on salmon and amphibian populations, and can also harm terrestrial biota.

Chromium IV is generally agreed to be capable of causing cancer when inhaled; however, there is uncertainty if it is carcinogenic through the oral route of exposure.Chromium III is an essential human nutrient in small doses and has a higher maximum daily exposure risk according to the EPA, meaning that it is less likely to be severely detrimental.

Brominated Fire Retardants

Brominated Flame Retardents (BFRs) are added to consumer e-waste products in an effort to reduce the risk of injury or damage from fire. They are found on printed circuit boards, components such as plastic covers and cables as well as plastic covers of televisions. Although less is known about BFRs than many other contaminants, research has shown that one of these flame retardants, Polybrominated Diphenylethers (PDBE) might act as an endocrine disrupter. Flame retardant (Polybrominated Biphenyls or PBB) may increase cancer risk to the digestive and lymph systems.

Scientists believe that once BFRs are released into the environment through landfill leachate and incineration they are concentrated in the food chain, accumulating in fatty tissues in a similar fashion to the bioaccumulation of methylmercury described above.

Risk analysts are concerned about BFRs because of their persistence, bioaccumulation, and potential for toxicity in humans; however, scientific understanding of the health and environmental effects of BFRs is very limited and results from the current literature are incomplete and often conflicting. Additionally, the major pathway for human BFR exposure is unknown. A report published in Environmental Health Perspectives stating that the “toxicology database [for BFRs] is inadequate to truly understand the risk.”

E-Waste In Landfills:

The methods humans have developed for disposing of waste are imperfect and may result in detrimental effects to the environment and humans. When e-waste is disposed of in landfills, toxins can leach into groundwater or nearby water bodies. For instance, lead can leach from landfills into drinking water supplies, and mercury can leach into surrounding soils. Chromium may contaminate the environment through landfill leachate, and air contamination can occur when materials containing chromium are incinerated. Landfills and incineration are currently major exposure pathways for humans to the hazardous chemicals found in e-waste. Landfills are of particular concern since currently there are few other viable methods of disposal for most consumers. They face the choice of keeping the old computer indefinitely in a closet, or placing it in a landfill.
While landfills are designed to process toxins and waste, leaking can occur in the lining, or toxins may evaporate off of leachate ponds. Leachate is the liquid formed when water percolates through the toxic substances deposited in landfills and absorbs the toxins. It pools in the bottom of the landfill and is pumped out into a nearby pond. Contaminants may also be released into the air when waste is crushed or incinerated. Municipal solid waste workers also occasionally transport contaminants on their clothing.
The basic parts of a landfill are the bottom liner system, the cells, storm water drainage system, the methane collection system, the covering and the leachate collection systemFigure 4: This figure outlines the basic parts of a landfill. Landfills may leak into the environment, and are sometimes near water bodies.fig4-ewaste-in-landfillsSource: http://people.howstuffworks.com/landfill6.htm-17
  • A- Ground Water
  • B- Compacted Clay
  • C- Plastic Layer
  • D- Leachate Collection Pipe
  • E- Geotextile Mat
  • F- Gravel
  • G- Drainage Layer
  • H- Soil Layer
  • I- Old Cell
  • J- New Cell
  • K- Leachate Pond

Components of Landfills: Bottom Liner System

The bottom liner system separates trash and subsequent leachate from groundwater. It is the main defense in municipal waste sites to prevent toxic substances such as e-waste from environmental exposure. These are designed to be impervious to leaks. However, over time they can deteriorate and become ineffective, allowing the toxins to leak into the surrounding soil and groundwater.


Components of Landfills: Cells (old and new)

Trash is stored in cells within a landfill. After a certain period of time, a cell will be covered over, and a new cell will begin above. Precipitation is allowed to percolate between cells to the bottom of a landfill, leaching toxins out of e-waste products as it descends until it reaches the impermeable layer at the bottom.


Components of Landfills: Storm Water Drainage System

The storm water drainage system is designed to collect rain water that falls on a landfill to prevent flooding and environmental exposure.


Components of Landfills: Leachate Collection System

The Leachate collection system collects water that has percolated through the landfill and absorbed toxic contaminants from e-waste and other hazardous materials. The contaminated leachate is then pumped out into a nearby leachate collection pond, where the contaminated water is contained. This water is still able to evaporate, however, releasing toxins into the atmosphere.17


Components of Landfills: Methane Collection System

The methane collection system collects methane gas formed during the breakdown of solid waste. Methane is a highly flammable greenhouse gas, and needs to be collected to prevent risk of explosion in the presence of an ignition source. Once collected this gas can be flared off or used as a fuel to generate electrical power.


Components of Landfills: Covering or Cap

The covering seals off the top of the landfill once it has been filled. This prevents atmospheric exposure to hazardous chemicals once the landfill is no longer in use and reduces the leaching of toxins due to precipitation.
Overall, there are potential sources of environmental exposure to toxins present in e-waste at each stage of the landfill process. These are relatively mature technologies, and it is unlikely that new breakthroughs will drastically reduce the likelihood of exposure to contaminants from landfills. With the growing stream of e-waste projected to enter the market, the exposure risks associated with landfills are a major concern.

Diagram of a Cross-Section of a Landfill


Disposal Problems and Loss of Resources

Currently, less than 10 percent of e-waste produced is reused or recycled. This means that the majority of the e-waste is disposed of in landfills, where it can eventually create health problems through human exposure. Some computer manufacturers intentionally design their products for short life cycles and employ materials and processes that hinder recycling efforts with the objective of requiring consumers to purchase new products. However, in addition to hazardous materials, e-waste contains valuable resources (such as gold, copper, and aluminum) which are lost if the waste is not recycled.


 

Lack of Domestic Incentives for Recycling/Reuse

E-waste recycling systems are currently scarce in the United States; as a result, businesses and individual consumers experience difficulty when attempting to recycle electronic devices. Consumers often face a lengthy trip to find the nearest recycler and a high cost for parting with the device when they arrive. In addition, interstate recycling (made necessary by the scarcity of programs), compounded with unclear regulation, inflates the cost of recycling.
As a result of these disincentives to domestic recycling, 50-80% of the e-waste produced in the United States that does not enter landfills is exported to developing countries, where hazardous material regulations are less severe or nonexistent. Unsafe recycling practices in these countries can be highly hazardous to workers, and often create even greater health hazards than disposal in landfills.