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E-Waste Has Negative Effects on the Environment

So the real question is: where do all of those obsolete, outdated or non-functioning electronics go?

Electronic waste, also known as e-waste, is any electronic product, or product containing electronic components, that has reached the end of its usable life cycle. Unbeknownst to many consumers, electronics actually contain toxic substances - therefore they must be handled with care when no longer wanted or needed. If a product is outdated, consumers can donate it to someone who might still find it valuable. Many retailers also offer trade-in programs or incentives for people looking to upgrade electronics that require the surrender of an older model; the retailers are able to reuse or repurpose the older models. However, if a product is totally unusable or broken, instead of just being thrown in the garbage, it must be thrown away by a certified e-waste hauler or recycler, or taken to a designated drop-off at a government building, school or organization as e-waste can potentially cause harm to humans, animals and the global environment if disposed of improperly.

The consequences of improper e-waste disposal in landfills or other non-dumping sites pose serious threats to current public health and can pollute ecosystems for generations to come. When electronics are improperly disposed and end up in landfills, toxic chemicals are released, impacting the earth’s air, soil, water and ultimately, human health.

The Negative Effects on Air

Contamination in the air occurs when e-waste is informally disposed by dismantling, shredding or melting the materials, releasing dust particles or toxins, such as dioxins, into the environment that cause air pollution and damage respiratory health. E-waste of little value is often burned, but burning also serves a way to get valuable metal from electronics, like copper. Chronic diseases and cancers are at a higher risk to occur when burning e-waste because it also releases fine particles, which can travel thousands of miles, creating numerous negative health risks to humans and animals. Higher value materials, such as gold and silver, are often removed from highly integrated electronics by using acids, desoldering, and other chemicals, which also release fumes in areas where recycling is not regulated properly. The negative effects on air from informal e-waste recycling are most dangerous for those who handle this waste, but the pollution can extend thousands of miles away from recycling sites

The air pollution caused by e-waste impacts some animal species more than others, which may be endangering these species and the biodiversity of certain regions that are chronically polluted. Over time, air pollution can hurt water quality, soil and plant species, creating irreversible damage in ecosystems. For instance, an informal recycling hub in Guiyu, China that was formed by parties interesting in extracting valuable metals from e-waste, and subsequently has caused the region to have extremely high lead levels in the air, which are inhaled and then ingested when returned to water and soil. This can cause disproportionate neurological damage to larger animals, wildlife and humans in the area.

The Negative Effects on Soil

When improper disposal of e-waste in regular landfills or in places where it is dumped illegally, both heavy metals and flame retardants can seep directly from the e-waste into the soil, causing contamination of underlying groundwater or contamination of crops that may be planted near by or in the area in the future. When the soil is contaminated by heavy metals, the crops become vulnerable to absorbing these toxins, which can cause many illnesses and doesn’t allow the farmland to be as productive as possible.

When large particles are released from burning, shredding or dismantling e-waste, they quickly re-deposit to the ground and contaminate the soil as well, due to their size and weight. The amount of soil contaminated depends on a range of factors including temperature, soil type, pH levels and soil composition. These pollutants can remain in the soil for a long period of time and can be harmful to microorganisms in the soil and plants. Ultimately, animals and wildlife relying on nature for survival will end up consuming affected plants, causing internal health problems.

The Negative Effects on Water

After soil contamination, heavy metals from e-waste, such as mercury, lithium, lead and barium, then leak through the earth even further to reach groundwater. When these heavy metals reach groundwater, they eventually make their way into ponds, streams, rivers and lakes. Through these pathways, acidification and toxification are created in the water, which is unsafe for animals, plants and communities even if they are miles away from a recycling site. Clean drinking water becomes problematic to find.

Acidification can kill marine and freshwater organisms, disturb biodiversity and harm ecosystems. If acidification is present in water supplies, it can damage ecosystems to the point where recovery is questionable, if not impossible.

The Negative Effects on Humans

As mentioned, electronic waste contains toxic components that are dangerous to human health, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, polybrominated flame retardants, barium and lithium. The negative health effects of these toxins on humans include brain, heart, liver, kidney and skeletal system damage. It can also considerably affect the nervous and reproductive systems of the human body, leading to disease and birth defects. Improper disposal of e-waste is unbelievably dangerous to the global environment, which is why it is so important to spread awareness on this growing problem and the threatening aftermath. To avoid these toxic effects of e-waste, it is crucial to properly e-cycle, so that items can be recycled, refurbished, resold, or reused. The growing stream of e-waste will only worsen if not educated on the correct measures of disposal.

You have most likely been reading our previous posts and learned what happens to cell phones when they are thrown away> In case you need a refresher:

Phones contain toxic chemicals that, when a phone is placed in a landfill, may ultimately leach into groundwater and poison the water in surrounding areas. ... If recycling your phone is not an option, you may discard it. If you must throw away your phone, it is important to do so in a safe, environmentally conscious way.

-Mobile phones contain harmful toxins including lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chlorine and bromine, which can leak into the groundwater and bioaccumulate in the food chain causing detrimental damage to the soil, water supply, vegetation, animals and humans. ... A single cell phone contains up to 2 grams of mercury.

-Lead exposure can cause damage to the reproductive, blood and nervous systems. Mercury is used in the cell phone's battery, crystal displays and circuit boards. Arsenic is found in the microchips of many electronic devices including mobile phones.

-A compound called lithium cobalt oxide forms the cathode, and the electrolyte consists of salts such as lithium perchlorate. When you use your cell phone, the chemicals in the battery react to produce an electric current.

- A form of mercury called methylmercury can cause neurological impairment in children, infants and fetuses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Inorganic mercury can cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system, and the kidneys. People may not experience risks from holding the phone itself, but once the phone become e-waste, the chemicals can get in the water and soil and potentially pose risks.

-Americans throw away 130 million cell phones each year - and only 8 percent are recycled properly. This can lead to air and water pollution when the phones are incinerated or placed in landfills. The United Nations Environment Programme 2009 found that a phone can contain phone can contain over 40 elements including heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants.

A vision for Kentucky (Center For Environmental Policy, Making The Case For E-Waste Recycling Programs/State and Local Policy Approaches for Managing Kentucky’s E-Waste By Liz Edmondson, Staff Attorney on 08/01/2019):


Electronic waste, or “e-waste,” is widely recognized as the fastest growing source of waste worldwide.[1] Imagine almost 4500 Eiffel Towers. If you placed these next to each other in one space they would cover an area the size of Manhattan. Those 4500 Eiffel Towers weigh almost 50 million tons, which equals the amount of e-waste generated around the globe each year.[2] By 2050, estimates from the United Nations University in Vienna predict that the volume of e-waste could surpass 120 million tons annually if nothing changes.[3]

Despite the fact that almost all e-waste can be reused, refurbished, or recycled, only 20% is actually handled appropriately due in large part to the lack of regulation and recycling infrastructure. While there is limited data on what happens to the rest, most is likely either dumped into landfills or incinerators or exported to poorer countries where a lack of environmental and safety laws pose a serious hazard to workers, human health, and the environment who salvage metals and other materiel from the e-scrap.[4]

Because e-waste contains both valuable precious and special metals, such as gold, silver, and platinum, and hazardous materials such as lead and mercury, end-of-life management of e-waste is imperative in order to protect human health and the environment and to recover valuable components from these products.

Yet, there is no federal law in the United States requiring e-waste recycling or banning this waste stream from landfills and incinerators. Instead, states and local governments must create their own programs, which 25 states and the District of Columbia have done with limited success.[5] Kentucky does not ban e-waste from the solid waste stream nor require e-waste recycling, and residents in well over half of Kentucky counties do not have access to any kind of electronic recycling facility or program.[6] While the rate of e-waste recycling in Kentucky is unknown, with lack of action on the federal level it is imperative that steps be taken at the local and state level to ensure this rapidly growing waste stream is managed appropriately and that all Kentucky residents have access to e-waste recycling.

What is E-Waste and Why is it a Problem?

While the definition of e-waste varies, in the United States it generally refers to electronic equipment, as well as any of its components, that has reached the end of its useful life. This includes outdated products such as televisions with cathode ray tubes, VCRs, and DVD players, and also includes cell phones, tablets, fitness trackers, laptops, computers, printers, stereos, copiers, and anything else with a circuit board. E-waste comes from a variety of sources, including consumers, governments, and businesses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that in 2014, over 720 million new electronics products were sold, while 3.36 million tons of previously used electronics had reached the end of their useful lives and needed to be managed.[7] This is a substantial increase from just 5 years before in 2009 where only 438 million new electronics products were sold and 2.37 million tons of electronics were ready for end of life management. While recycling rates are also increasing, up from less than 1% in 1990 to over 27% in 2009, e-waste continues to be a rapidly growing portion of the solid waste stream in the United States and around the globe.[8]

E-waste is also problematic because it can contain many different substances, including lead, mercury, and carcinogenic compounds, that can be harmful to people and the environment if not dealt with appropriately. While e-waste makes up just 2% of the solid waste stream in the United States, it accounts for 70% of the heavy metals deposited into landfills.[9] These substances can pollute water, air, and food supply chains and be harmful to workers in unregulated parts of the world where informal e-waste dumps utilize open burning and other dangerous practices to harvest metals from e-waste. In addition, by not reusing and recycling these products and the valuable materials remaining in them, we contribute to climate change and other environmental problems since more raw materials will be required to be mined and processed or fabricated make new products.

In addition, as electronic components are present in more and more products and the number of electronic devices people own continues to rise, the e-waste problem will only get worse unless action is taken. Every person in the United States produces an average of 44 pounds of e-waste per year.[10] As technology continues to increase at an exponential rate and consumers continue to demand the newest and best products, electronic devices will reach the end of their useful lives at a faster rate, resulting in the continued increase in e-waste.

Congress has refused to require e-waste recycling nationwide and the United States has declined to join with 188 nations around the world to ratify a treaty that restricts the transboundary international movement of hazardous wastes[11] As a result, states and localities are left to address these problems in a vacuum, which can cause problems for manufacturers trying to comply with a patchwork of regulations.

E-Waste Recycling Presents Untapped Value and Opportunity

Despite the growing problems associated with e-waste, there is huge potential for economic value. E-waste contains valuable materials such as gold, copper, silver, platinum, and palladium, among others. If all of the valuable components from e-waste were harvested and sold, the value of e-waste generated each year would be $62.5 billion. This value is slightly more than the GDP of Costa Rica and three times more than the yearly production of all silver mines worldwide.[12] Similarly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that we can recover 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium for every 1 million cell phones that are recycled.[13] In the U.S. alone, we discard 1 million cell phones every 2 days. Prices for some of these commodities are unstable and less of these substances are present in increasingly smaller and lighter devices, which cost more to dismantle. However, as recycling technology improves and more and more devices are recycled, a large, untapped economic opportunity existing in e-waste recycling and reuse can be captured. Using current prices for gold of about $1420 per ounce, the value of gold that could be recovered by recycling all of the discarded cell phones in the U.S. each year is over $310 million.[14]

Repairing products and reusing their valuable components reduces the carbon footprint associated with new devices and reduces the environmental damage associated with mining raw materials. Ensuring these products are properly and safely recycled protects our environment and health by keeping harmful substances from polluting air and water or damaging the health and safety of workers or those living near incinerators or disposal areas. In addition, an expansion of e-waste recycling has the potential to create jobs, and trained recyclers can alleviate privacy protection concerns by ensuring that sensitive and confidential data is removed from electronic devices during the recycling process.

What is the State of E-Waste Recycling in Kentucky?

While the overall recycling rate in Kentucky has remained at a steady 35-40% for a number of years, the rate of e-waste recycling is likely much lower. Kentucky does not require business or consumer e-waste recycling and only 50 of Kentucky’s 120 counties offer any type of e-waste collection program, including drop-off programs and periodic e-waste collection events.[15] Compared to similar states, Kentucky falls far behind in e-waste collection and citizen access to e-waste recycling. For example, in North Carolina 99.4% of citizens have access to electronics recycling and the state collected over 20,000 tons of e-waste for recycling in 2015-2016.[16] In contrast, Kentucky collected only 2,296 tons in 2016.[17]

While Kentucky does not have e-waste legislation, it does have a contract with a recycling company that mandates the collection and recycling of all e-waste generate by the executive branch of the state government. The judicial and legislative branches, as well as political subdivisions of the state such as county and city governments, school districts, and universities have the option to use this contract as well. Given that approximately 80% of the e-waste recycled in North Carolina came from local governments, Kentucky has a similar opportunity to significantly expand e-waste recycling in this sector.

In addition, while some local government recycling facilities in Kentucky accept e-waste for recycling, almost all cities and counties with this service have only one drop off location, which may not be convenient to a person’s home or workplace. In addition, some cities such as Lexington, do not accept e-waste from businesses. However, there are private companies, retailers, and manufacturers that offer e-waste recycling and periodic events are held by various entities where drop-offs can occur.[18]

Improving E-Waste Recycling in Kentucky: Policy Options and Implications

Managing e-waste is challenging given the number of substances contained in devices, the constantly fluctuating values in the commodities market, and the fact that recyclers can often experience increases in costs that make it uneconomical to recycle certain products. While many states are struggling to adapt their e-waste laws to fit the changing dynamics of e-waste, several principles are essential in designing sound e-waste management policies:

The management of e-waste will require governments to develop legal, policy, and regulatory frameworks to ensure the effective management of e-waste.

The successful management of e-waste depends on coordination among multiple stakeholders, including manufacturers, consumers, recyclers, and government. All stakeholders should be involved in the policy development process.

Electronics users must have an incentive to reuse, refurbish, or recycle their products, and drop off locations or other avenues for e-waste collection must be easily accessible. If there is a monetary or time cost and no incentive, mandate, or penalty, there is a low likelihood that consumers will participate in the program.

E-waste policies should ensure that e-waste management is done in an environmentally sound manner and avoids impacts to human health and human rights.

Policies should promote the efficient use of resources by first encouraging the reduction of waste, then the direct reuse or products through refurbishment and repair, then the recycling and recovery of materials, and only when there is no alternative, the safe disposal of e-waste.

Policies should consider the appropriate funding sources for the program, which might include producers, consumers, government, other sources, or a combination of these. Most policies in the United States are based upon the “Extended Producer Responsibility” model that places the responsibility on the manufacturer, but there are others.

Policies should ensure that e-waste is managed by companies qualified to conduct the relevant activities and able to comply with the policies of the program.

Any policy should set realistic targets for the collection, reuse, and recycling of e-waste and put programs into place to ensure that these results can be tracked and measured.

The results of the program should be reviewed regularly and modified as needed to achieve the set goals.

Education programs are essential to ensure that electronics users are aware of the problems associated with e-waste, are educated about responsible consumption and options for re-use and refurbishment and are aware of the programs available to safely unload their unwanted electronics. Consider partnering with retailers and manufacturers to do this. Include programs targeting education and participation among school-aged children and university students.

Electronic Waste Vendors in Kentucky

Are you looking old electronics beyond repair and you need to take them to the the right place for disposal? Learn who which electronic waste vendor is closest to you:

[1] Lundren, K. “The global impact of e-waste: addressing the challenge.” International Labour Office, Geneva (2012).

[2] World Economic Forum, et. al., “A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot” (January, 2019), available at:

[3] Id.

[4] Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna. Available at:

[4] Schultz, Jennifer “Electronic Waste Recycling,” National Conference of State Legislatures (September 17, 2018), available at:

[4] Schultz, Jennifer “Electronic Waste Recycling,” National Conference of State Legislatures (September 17, 2018), available at:

[5] Schultz, Jennifer “Electronic Waste Recycling,” National Conference of State Legislatures (September 17, 2018), available at:

[6] Commonwealth of Kentucky, Department for Environmental Protection Division of Waste Management, “Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report,” available at:

[7] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “National Strategy for Electronic Stewardship: Accomplishments Report” (January 2017), available at:

[8] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Electronics Waste Management in the United States through 2010” (May 2011).

[9] Rosenfeld, Paul E. and Lydia G.H. Feng, “Risks of Hazardous Waste” (2011).

[10] Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna. Available at:

[11] See The Basel Convention, which governs the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes for recovery and disposal. Available at

[12] World Economic Forum, et. al., “A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot” (January, 2019), available at:

[13] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Electronic Donation and Recycling,” available at:

[14] However, note that gold prices have historically averaged about $700 per ounce from 1970 to 2007.

[15] Commonwealth of Kentucky, Department for Environmental Protection Division of Waste Management, “Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report,” available at:

[16] Presentation to the Environmental Review Commission about the N.C. Electronics Management Program (February 14, 2018) available at:

[17] Commonwealth of Kentucky, Department for Environmental Protection Division of Waste Management, “Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report,” available at:

[18] Kentucky Recycling Facilities by County (April 10, 2019), available at:

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