The Future of Environmentalism: Nanotech and E-Waste
Care2 Earth Month: Back to Basics
This year, Care2 decided to expand Earth Day into Earth Month, since there is so much to explore when it comes to the environment. Every day in April, we’ll have a post about some of the most important topics for the environment, exploring and explaining the basics. It’s a great tool to help you get started with helping the environment — or help explain it to others. See the whole series here.
What better way to wrap up Care2′s Earth Month than to address two emerging concerns for the environmental movement? Why is e-waste a problem, and what can you do to help? And what is nanotech, and why should you care?
E-Waste: Why It’s A Problem
E-waste is a catch-all term encompassing any electronic product that is discarded after it reaches the end of its useful life. In some cases, this is when your computer or phone breaks and can’t be repaired, but let’s be honest – mostly, we replace our electronics when something new and better hits the market.
Unfortunately, there often isn’t any safe way available to dispose of electronics. They contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals which break down in landfills and can find their way into drinking water. Many cities and states forbid the dumping of these products in the trash with your normal garbage (although that doesn’t stop people from doing it).
Where do “recycled” electronics end up?
Ideally, you should recycle these products to help ease the load on the environment. In practice, there may not be anywhere in your area that recycles electronics. Some recycling companies charge fees to take your broken computer, printer, microwave, or phone away.
And some companies are unscrupulous, exporting waste to developing nations without strong worker protections. There workers break down the materials, causing damage to the environment and the people living in the immediate area.
How can you properly dispose of e-waste?
The EPA estimates that only 15-20% of e-waste ends up being properly recycled. There are a number of resources available to help consumers responsibly dispose of their unwanted electronics.
GreenerGadets.org recommends a number of programs for recycling – not all of which involve breaking machines down for parts. Instead, they support programs to refurbish or trade in electronics, sometimes with programs that help provide computers to the developing world.
Your local waste management program can also refer you to reputable local resources for recycling your used electronics.
Nanotechnology: How Does It Work?
Nanotech is essentially a field of research centered around building things on a microscopic scale. This can mean engineering substances just slightly bigger than atoms, or creating molecule-sized devices. Obviously, it’s a field still in its infancy, but there’s a great deal of potential for innovation: proponents claim it can improve energy efficiency, improve the environment, and treat disease.
Nanotech and the Environment
While there have been some dire predictions that microscopic nano-machines might escape human control and wreak havoc on the environment, the real dangers are more mundane. Some scientists are concerned about how nanoparticles might interact with the environment and the human body – there’s evidence that the well-known properties of many substances change on the nano-scale.
Substances which may normally be inert could become dangerous. Oxford scientists, for example, have found that nanoparticles in sunscreen created free radicals that damaged DNA. More study is going to be needed on these new substance to make sure that they’re safe to use in consumer products.
There have been promising developments, however. Nanoparticles in paint might be used to draw pollutants out of the environment and keep the outsides of buildings clean without maintenance. Nanotech might also be used to improve the efficiency of solar cells and windmills, clean up groundwater, capture carbon dioxide and other pollutants, and clear volatile organic compounds from the air.
While the debate rages, it seems clear that nanotech is a tool with the capacity to help or hinder environmental efforts. What’s needed as this field develops is thorough research to ensure that emerging applications are safe and effective.
Photo credit: Gisela Giardino via Flickr