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What are the effects on human health of hazardous chemicals from obsolete electronic products?
With the rapid advancements in technology and engineering of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the ‘waste mountain’ of obsolete electrical products appears to be growing at an alarming rate. This essay evaluates five Internet-available resources which directly address the title in an attempt to assess the level of evidence available on the subject.
The first resource to be considered is the Greenpeace webpage ‘Eliminate Toxic Chemicals’ (Greenpeace, 2007), which highlights the negative impact that electronic equipment has on the environment, particularly in relation to toxic chemicals involved in the manufacturing process. It gives companies a ‘green ranking’ which one can assume is to allow the individual consumer to make informed choice about their buying options. It also highlights the fact that there are two environmental dangers from the rapid obsolescence of today’s products – the damage caused by manufacturing, and the damage to the environment of the large amounts of waste products being disposed of. As a resource, it directly informs the topic and provides plenty of information about the issue. In terms of reliability, Greenpeace has a mixed reputation of activism and credibility, and given that many of the electronics companies themselves are listed on the site, this may add credibility. It may, however, simply be another marketing ploy, given that environmental issues have become the latest commercially manipulated topic to fall victim to the capitalist bandwagon.
The resource seems up to date, with reports filed in June 2007. There are no authors cited, and little reference to scientific evidence in these pages themselves. However, the website is highly accessible, easy to read and easy to navigate. In criticism, the notion of the environmental impact of this issue is presented as a given, a fait accompli, with little or no critical debate on the issue.
The second resource is the article by Hischier et al (2005) on waste electrical and electronic equipment recycling. The authority of the authors is established on two fronts. The first is that this is published in a peer reviewed journal, and the second is that the authors’ affiliations to a Technology institute are given. The approach is scientifically credible, but the article remains readable, giving a good literature review, and a clear discussion of two Swiss take back and recycling systems with scientific analyses (Hischier et al, 2005). However, it does require a degree of technological and scientific knowledge to read the tables and results. It is reasonably up to date, having been written and published in 2004-2005. It highlights the issues related to recycling of these products, and concludes that the proposed systems would have clear environmental advantages (Hischier et al, 2005). It also notes some of the limitations and the need for ongoing assessment of such systems.
The third resource is an article by Poole and Simon (1997) on technological trends, product design and the environment. It is readable, accessible and easy to follow, but it’s greatest drawback is its age. However, it does demonstrate that the environmental impact of these technologies has been anticipated in the scientific literature. The authors are from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Manchester Metropolitan University, which suggests a degree of authority in addressing the subject. They demonstrate means by which products can undergo lifecycle analysis, and suggest that reducing environmental impact may come in the guise of smaller, mobile technologies (Poole and Simon, 1997). This would indeed perhaps reduce the waste volume of obsolete computational electronics, but not necessarily the environmental impact associated with the manufacturing processes of up to date products, or the challenges of recycling the materials used in original manufacture. Focusing on design trends, however, seems a positive approach in terms of longer term management of environmental insult.
The fourth resource is an article by Tanskanen and Takala (2006) which looks at a simplified model for an end of life process for mobile terminals. The authority of the authors may be questionable, given that they work for Nokia. On the one hand, this may suggest considerable knowledge and acumen of the subject; on the other, a degree of bias is inevitable given their affiliation. The publication of this in a reputable journal however does offset some of the possible bias, and it is up to date. It is accessible, but considerable specialist terminology is used which affects readability. The focus on efficacy and effectiveness in recycling processes and the need for further development is clear, showing that there is a potential to reduce environmental impact but the necessity for appropriate processes to achieve this (Tanskanen and Takala, 2006).
The fifth resource is by Macauley et al (2003), which is a little more dated but still within the last four years. The authors are affiliated to an environmentally focused company, and so their authority in terms of scientific or technological acumen is harder to establish. Again, the article is published in a reputable journal, is readable and in this case, easy to follow with logical discussions and some use of relevant literature. They examine the cost of computer monitor waste management in terms of environmental and health impacts of components, and cost of recycling or waste management policies (Macauley et al, 2003). There are considerable costs here, and this article demonstrates some elements of the economic minefield which characterises this debate. The authors clearly highlight the need to target research in the areas described, perhaps to lend further weight to environmentally-conscious policies of recycling and waste management (Macauley et al, 2003).
These resources have demonstrated some of the dimensions of the debate on this subject. All the resources assume and demonstrate that there is an environmental (and a general health) impact of electrical and electronics waste in the light of rapid obsolescence and increasing demand for these products. While ways in which to address this are suggested, no clear resolutions are apparent, and economic and practical concerns remain a barrier to implementation of environmentally sensitive recycling policies.
Greenpeace (2007) Eliminate Toxic Chemicals http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics Accessed 508-07.
Hischier, R., Wager, P. and Gauglhofer, J. (2005) Does WEEE recycling make sense from an environmental perspective? The environmental impacts of the Swiss take-back and recycling systems for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Environmental Impact Assessment Review 25 525-539.
Macauley, M., Palmer, K. and Shih, J-S. (2003) Dealing with electronic waste: modelling the costs and environmental benefits of computer monitor disposal. Journal of Environmental Management 68 13-22.
Poole, S. and Simon, M. (1997) Technological trends, product design and the environment. Design Studies 18 237-248.
Tanskanen, P. and Takala, R. (2006) A decomposition of the end of life process. Journal of Cleaner Production 14 1326-1332.
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