E-Waste Exposed

What old electronics do in a landfill and why they're so bad for the planet.

What old electronics do in a landfill and why they’re so bad for the planet.


They may be small, but cell phones' circuitry, batteries, and liquid crystal displays can contain toxins like arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, copper and lead. Their plastic casings have also been treated with brominated flame retardants, which may increase cancer risks. More than 100 million cell phones are retired each year.


Cathode ray tubes (CRTs), the leaded-glass picture tubes found in color computer monitors and television sets, are considered hazardous when discarded because of the presence of lead (about 4 pounds of lead per appliance). CRTs become a problem when the monitors or TV screens are broken and lead seeps into groundwater.


While laptops use less energy than desktop computers, they are similarly harmful to landfills. Their keyboards (and mice) rest upon circuit boards often covered in groundwater-poisoning lead. Their compact bodies are shaped from plastic treated with coatings (such as brominated flame retardants), paints, foams and labels.


It takes between 400 and 1,000 years for a single toner cartridge to break down in a landfill site. Additionally, such high-end electronics are made with valuable, often non-renewable resources such as precious metals, engineered plastics and glass.

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