Technologies have transformed transport, industry, communications and our lives at home and work. For instance, gadgets such as mobile phones, computers, televisions, microwave ovens and refrigerators have improved living standards for those people who can afford them. Technology can also improve the quality of our environment. For example, energy can be generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar power, which reduces our reliance on non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels, and also helps to reduce the release of polluting gases to the atmosphere.
Although technology has many positive impacts on people and the environment, it also has negative impacts, including the production of toxic waste from technological processes and electronic gadgets that are thrown away when they reach the end of their useful lives, as illustrated in the Case Study below.
Case Study: E-waste
When electronic equipment or gadgets get old or stop working they are often thrown away. This type of electronic waste is referred to as e-waste. E-wastes pose a huge challenge to the environment because they contain toxic substances such as cadmium and lead from batteries, which leach out and pollute rivers and groundwater. (Leaching means the substances seep out or are washed out by rain into the soil below.) Toxic substances may get into the soil, making it unfit for agriculture. Copper from wiring is valuable for recycling, but if wiring is burned, it produces very hazardous air pollution.
E-waste is becoming a major problem in many low-income countries, where the use of electrical equipment has increased sharply with the rising number of people on higher incomes.
As there is no proper e-waste management system in many low-income countries, some e-wastes are disposed of together with other household wastes or dumped in an uncontrolled way that may cause huge environmental problems. Figure 1.9 shows open solid waste disposal sites close to residential areas. All types of waste, including hazardous waste like heavy metals, are discarded here without any treatment, so toxins can seep into the soil and groundwater. (Hazardous waste is any waste that contains material that is potentially harmful, for example, toxic, infectious, corrosive, explosive or flammable materials.)
E-waste demanufacturing facilities (DMF) are designed to collect e-waste, dismantle them and sort the different components to recover valuable metals (Figure 1.10), which is an example of good practice in e-waste disposal.