This is a story that begins and ends with electronic waste. Somewhere in between, we incorporate landfills, soil remediation and sunflowers into the mix. I promise it will all make sense, just follow closely.
Have you ever wondered what happens to electric car batteries when they run out of juice? Strange question, sure. But really think about it. The Nickel Cadmium battery is replaced with a brand spankin’ new Lithium Ion battery…but where does our beloved old “Nicad” battery go?
Let’s expand on that idea. What about old headphones, wires and computer monitors that are relinquished to a dumpster, never to spark electronic joy in a household ever again?
For many consumers and businesses, the thought abruptly stops there. Out of sight, out of mind, right? But with electronic waste – popularly known as “e-waste” – accumulating at an alarming rate, these are questions worth asking.
Follow us down the garbage chute…
The E-waste Conundrum
E-waste encompasses any unusable or otherwise unwanted electrical or electronic equipment. Car batteries, cell phones, TV screens and those pesky fax machines are a few examples, but anything that plugs into an outlet or contains a battery is fair game.
E-waste piling up in a landfill
With the rising popularity of cord-free products, the number of batteries piling up in landfills is on the rise. Nicad batteries contribute to this waste stream in a particularly interesting way (and trust me this’ll all make sense soon).
Nicads were at one time widely used in a variety of products, most notably in electric vehicles up until the 1990’s. Due to toxicity concerns and alternative battery types entering the market, their use has steadily declined. Nicads currently account for roughly 6% of all batteries in global circulation.
As a result, many of these Nicads are finding their way to the landfill. This is, perhaps, not surprising; the EPA estimates that only 12.5% of e-waste is actually recycled.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was signed into law in 1976 to address growing volumes of waste, and is our nation’s primary law governing solid and hazardous waste disposal. Plenty of new mandates have been added in the years since the law’s creation. One mandate in particular calls for waste minimization – the “use of source reduction and/or environmentally sound recycling methods prior to treating or disposing of hazardous wastes”.
Per this mandate, waste that could be considered hazardous should undergo environmentally sound recycling methods prior to disposal. The data indicates that this practice is not exactly being followed to a tee.
Repeat after me, electronics have no place in landfills.
A common misconception is that landfilled waste poses little risk to the surrounding environment because it is fully contained in the landfill. This couldn’t be further from the truth though. Discarded items are constantly shifting, changing, and finding their way out of the landfill. Heavy rainfall often mixes with landfill waste to form a chemical effluent called leachate. This solid waste byproduct can then find its way into surface waters like rivers and lakes.
Every properly engineered landfill is “contained” by a composite liner system that sits directly underneath the site.
Graphical representation of a typical landfill with a composite liner system
The liner acts as a barrier to slow the migration of leachate from the landfill. However, these liners aren’t perfect. They wear down over time, and can succumb to natural wear and tear. In these cases, small quantities of leachate may percolate into the soil and nearby groundwater supply, spreading to all connected waterways. Not only is this ecologically devastating for aquatic organisms, but it’s detrimental to land-based organisms that draw water from these sources (think plants, trees, and ….humans).
By the same processes, heavy metals from our Nicad batteries may inevitably leach into the water supply. To get a sense of the magnitude of this issue, consider an EPEAT estimate that approximately 40% of heavy metals in U.S. landfills originate from discarded electronics. When this occurs, a series of processes chemically fix the metals into surrounding soils.
When heavy metals become fixed in soil, a host of issues arise. Organisms that depend on the soil become exposed to the heavy metals and their toxic effects. Plants will uptake metals from the soil. Large grazing animals will consume the plant matter. Humans will consume both plant matter and grazing animals, ingesting a double whammy of heavy metals.
Heavy metal pollutants have been known to have carcinogenic effects on the body, resulting in tumorous growth and directly impacting cellular life cycles. Cadmium specifically has been known to cause a slew of health issues. Namely kidney disease, fragile bones, lung damage, and many others.
So, our soil is contaminated with Nickel and Cadmium, great! What in the world do we do next?
Modern methods of soil remediation – the process of removing contaminants from soil – are highly cost and time intensive. These methods can be more difficult to deploy and monitor when lower concentrations of contaminants are spread out over large areas.
Phytoremediation, the process of using hyperaccumulator plants for soil remediation, may offer a more effective alternative than traditional methods of soil remediation. Hyperaccumulators are capable of growing in high concentrations of heavy metals, in both solid and aqueous environments. These plants are able to extract metals from the soil through their root systems and other uptake channels.
By leveraging the root networks of plants that naturally absorb metals fixed in the soil, larger, undefined areas of contamination can be treated. Scattered metals are concentrated in more centralized locations of plants and root networks, making them easier to identify, collect, and eventually treat.
One of the most effective hyperaccumulators, the common sunflower, is able to effectively uptake both Cadmium and Nickel through its root system network.
Sunflowers were used to reduce concentrations of Chromium and Nickel in two locations in Greece: the Asopos River and Messapia. These two regions provide a significant portion of crop yield and are afflicted by high concentrations of heavy metal in their irrigation aquifers. The results showed that the sunflowers planted in areas with high concentrations of heavy metals successfully reduced the concentrations of metals in the soil and groundwater.
Hyperaccumulation in the plants allowed for easier harvesting. From there, the metal content in the plants could be extracted, or the entire plant could be properly treated and disposed of.
The Root of the Issue
While sunflowers may provide a viable method of soil remediation in certain scenarios, the root of the issue still remains: e-waste and its toxic heavy metals are still reaching landfills in alarmingly high quantities.
The issues stem from a combination of things: a lack of education, recycling malpractice, and a lack of visibility into waste and recycling operations.
Consumers by and large are unaware of the e-waste disposal options available to them. Commercial businesses and manufacturers may be knowingly and unknowingly engaging in sham recycling. Millions of consumers and businesses are trashing electronics every day, making it nearly impossible for government agencies to identify all the infractions and enforce RCRA protocols.
Even when attempting to properly recycle, many businesses are unaware of the laws and nuances governing specific items. For example, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are considered hazardous waste, and must be safely and compliantly recycled according to RCRA stipulations. There are, however, conditional exclusions for used, broken CRTs that may apply. Batteries, on the other hand, are considered a universal waste, and are subject to less stringent regulations (with a few exceptions, of course).
With the variety and complexity of electronic items becoming e-waste every day, keeping up with regulations can be a daunting task. Manually deciphering complex regulations is a time consuming and outdated mission. Humans make mistakes – it happens. But honest mistakes can snowball into non-compliance events and enormous fines for businesses.
Smarter Sorting leverages machine learning and product intelligence to automate the correct RCRA waste codes and decision making for consumer products. Real time data is updated continuously, and available instantly. Most importantly, electronic items that are eligible for recycling are identified so they can be sent to safe, reputable e-waste recyclers.
Together, with the help of some brave and committed sunflowers, we can keep heavy metals out of landfills, water, and soil – for good.