“Well, so what? These ‘smart’ appliances are all cheap enough that we can wear them into obsolescence and replace the old ones with new ones. Generational upgrades are always annoying, but we already do it with phones and laptops. It’s not the end of the world.Until it is.Electronic waste, or ‘e-waste,’ is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. According to a 2017 report by the United Nations.”  Rick Paulas | NY Magazine SelectAll

A 2014 report from Electronics Take Back Coalition, tells us that in 2010, the EPA reported we disposed of 142,000computers and over 416,000 mobile devices in the US every day. That was nearly 8 years ago when Smart Phones were relatively new. Now, with 5g, industry is moving rapidly to try to get every “thing” possible connected and online.

What are we thinking when we carelessly add millions of new small cell antennas and about 50 billion IoT things to our e-waste stream? With the IoT, household items such as washing machines, mattresses, tea kettles, plant-waterers etc.are all joining the ranks of e-waste. And the demise of each IoT “thing” will be hastened yet further by cyber vulnerabilities not able to be patched, planned obsolescence, and/or the pursuit of newer, sleeker gadgets and “things” with ever more features. How toxic is the mining and manufacturing of all these “things” and devices? How will these products be discarded? Will recycling be enough? And will our earth be able to absorb and “digest” this amount of waste?

Currently, a portion of our e-waste is sent to poorer countries where it’s dismantled by impoverished workers and children using very primitive tools. Toxins leach into the environment harming workers, ground, water, and air.

An article by Austin Lumbard, US obsession with electronics has huge human price touches on a number of the social and environmental justice issues of our discarded devices. In a discussion about the toxins used in our digital electronics, he writes,

E-waste from printers, monitors, computers and phones contains high levels of toxins, such as lead, mercury and cadmium. Because these toxins can seep out of e-waste and contaminate water sources, it is illegal to send them to landfill in the United States.

In a Business World article, Nurit Kanti explains:

With lack of proper barriers to prevent this leakage, and the high concentration of these toxic substances, the impact of the e-waste on the ecosystem is extremely long-lasting, irreversible and dangerous to the sustainability of everyone around that eco-system.

But e-waste from discarded products is only part of the problem. A far more significant contributor to e-waste is the release of toxins from mining and manufacturing electronics. In an article in The Conversation, author Josh Lepawsky explains,

“No amount of post-consumer recycling can recoup the waste generated before consumers purchase their devices.”

A lengthy article published by Bloomberg Business Week, American Chipmakers Had a Toxic Problem Then They Outsourced It, explains how toxins, used in the manufacturing of microchips, caused many birth defects and miscarriages. That was 30 years ago, and supposedly, the toxins were phased out. But a follow-up study was conducted in 2013 that indicated many toxins still remain. The workers manufacturing these products get the first “hit,” but the exposure is echoed at the end life of these gadgets as well – toxins in, toxins out – as poorly paid workers manufacture and disassemble these products.

Planned obsolescence is another big player in our e-waste travesty. (for more on planned obsolescence see Energy Consumption.) Manufacturers convince us of the “need” to upgrade our devices nearly every year which leads to yet more e-waste. Greenpeace informs us about how tech companies make products that are easily broken and nearly impossible to repair – 5 ways tech companies are making your devices die too soon. The article explains, “…the growing trend among major IT brands is to make our phones and other devices more difficult to repair and maintain.” 

Patches for the many expected IoT cyber security breaches are also not realistic. A far less cumbersome solution and more profitable for manufacturers, is for us to discard and replace a compromised IoT “thing”. (For more on the difficulty of patching IoT products, see Cyber Security.)

The big tech companies, which should be trailblazers in finding ways to minimize e-waste by using recycled materials and making cradle-to-grave products, received nearly failing grades on sustainability. According to Greenpeace, Guide to Greener Electronics 2017,

“Billions of electronics are being made, sold, and disposed of every year—a cycle that drives short-term profits for electronics manufacturers, but at too high a cost for the planet we all share.”

But even if these tech companies were to operate as if there were a tomorrow, the sheer volume of production and consumption industry promotes would/will likely leave us mired in a massive e-waste calamity.


Turns out that e-waste is not just an environmental travesty, but a cyber security problem as well — Our personal data seems to be turning up in e-waste!  In a Fortune Tech article, Why One of the World’s Biggest E-Waste Recyclers Is Banking on Cybersecurity, author Robert Hackett tells us,

“Customers are ready to pay up, Shegerian [an e-waste recycler] says, to properly dispose of devices that might contain traces of either customer or employee data or trade secrets.”

Story of Electronics

Though this 7 minute video clip is from 2010, the issues it discusses are significantly more urgent now with the unfortunate mad rush to the Internet of Things.

“This is a story about a world obsessed with stuff. It’s a story about a system in crisis. We’re trashing the planet, we’re trashing each other, and we’re not even having fun.”


For the annotated script:


Waste created in mining, manufacturing or using electronics far exceeds waste from discarding these things.

Our Tech Addiction Is Creating a ‘Toxic Soup’
It’s time to address the crisis
Jan. 29th, 2019 | Josh Lepawsky  | The Medium 
“If estimates are correct, people will be discarding about 110 million tons of electronics sometime between the years 2033 and 2042…Troubling though the numbers may be, they include none of the waste that arises in the mining, making, or using of those electronics. And there is plenty….In fact, the waste from discarding gadgets is dwarfed by the waste created from mining the materials to make them in the first place.” 
“Over and over, these companies’ own data show that emissions arising in production usually outweigh those arising from transportation (that is, distribution from factory to consumer), product use, or end-of-life management (or recycling).”
And energy consumption:
“Today’s data centers consume about 1 to 1.5 percent of total electricity generated globally. But rates of growth are estimated to be between 11 and 16 percent annually.”

Reassembling Rubbish & Worlding Electronic Waste by Josh Lepawsky | Nov. 14th, 2017 The bulk of e-waste is in the mining and manufacturing, not in the post consumer processing of discarded electronics. To date, the problem of e-waste has largely been framed as waste generated by ‘developed’ countries being dumped on ‘developing’ countries. This framing actually hinders finding genuine solutions.
Sep 10, 2014 Allen Hershowitz: “We throw out about 130,000 computers every day in the United States….And we throw out over 100 million cell phones a year.” What will be with the advent of the Internet of Things?
May 9, 2016 The U.S. leads the world in e-waste.  A watchdog group has found a lot of tossed junk, with its toxic components, winds up in poorer nations.
COMPLICIT- Trailer about toxic exposure to workers. Story of Yi Yeting, a former migrant worker struggling to survive occupational leukemia in China’s electronics factory zone.
Wake Up Call (Animated Short Film by Steve Cutts) E-waste from planned obsolescence will likely increase exponentially with the advent of the IoT.
How are the west’s ‘recycled’ TVs and computers ending up in a toxic dump in Ghana? Dateline investigates the trade in e-waste which is poisoning a once picturesque part of Africa.
Jun 1, 2016 RTD visits Ghana’s most infamous dumping ground, Agbogbloshie. Its air and soil are polluted with toxic chemicals, while extreme poverty, child labour and criminal gangs are also rife. (25 min.) https://rtd.rt.com/films/toxicity/
Published on Jul 11, 2016 The E-Waste Curse: The deadly effect of dumping E-waste in Pakistan – Pakistan has become an illegal dumping ground for some of the 50 million tons of e-waste created each year.
The UN says e-waste in Asia has jumped nearly two-thirds in 5 years, raising hazards for the environment and for people who dismantle discarded gadgets.
Additional Resources on E-Waste and E-Injustice