Examining the impact of eWaste on marine life

Examining the impact of eWaste on marine life

30 January 2017

IDR Environmental Services says it plainly: “Already two-thirds of aquatic life is considered to be an endangered species because of improperly disposed chemicals and other waste.” What’s more: “When a toxic waste harms one organism, it can end up destroying an entire food chain of aquatic life.” And it’s happening fast. According to Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, “We know we’re losing biodiversity at a rate that is 1,000 times faster than we should be.” And the problem is spreading. “Improperly disposed chemicals pollute marine life and kills sea mammals, corals, and fish,” Pimm says. “At the same time, sea birds are affected because they eat the fish. In a matter of fact, any organism that digests affected marine life can have adverse effects.”

eWaste doesn’t have to be dumped directly into the world’s water sources to end up there. Landfilled eWaste can affect marine wildlife, as the toxic chemicals in eWaste that do not organically break down can, over time, can seep directly into the environment to contaminate ground water; and if the items are incinerated, the toxins get absorbed into the atmosphere and return in atmospheric fallout or acid rain.

The following heavy metals, toxic substances and hazardous chemicals are used in the manufacture of electrical and electronic equipment. It’s after their useful life, when they’re landfilled, incinerated or dumped into waterways, that they prove most devasating.


According to Greenpeace research, metallic lead, in its various forms, is used in:

  • batteries and solder [in circuit boards]
  • alloy (with tin)
  • the glass of cathode ray tubes (CRTs)
  • compounds used as stabilisers in PVC formulations

Under landfill conditions lead can leach from CRT glass; incineration and burning can result in release of lead into the air as in the ash produced; and releases of lead oxide dust or lead fumes may occur during glass crushing or high temperature processing, including smelting. Once in the soil, lead leaches into ground water; once in the air, it can be captured in acid rain, which falls back to earth, into soil and into ground water, which discharges to springs, lakes, rivers, and oceans.

“It is currently thought,” says Greenpeace, “that there may be no level of blood-lead that does not produce a toxic effect, particularly in the developing central nervous system (ATSDR 2007, Canfield et al. 2003). Similar toxic effects are seen in animals, and lead is also toxic to all aquatic life (WHO 1989, Sadiq 1992).”


Mercury, according to e-Cycle, is used in:

  • cell phone batteries
  • crystal displays
  • circuit boards

Mercury is a long-term threat, according to Reset.org, as it “may be retained in soil and groundwater systems for long periods of time, even centuries.” For marine life, consequequences are devastating. Consider the earthworm or a fish in a river: “Larger animals which ingest these organisms,” says Reset.org, “are then contaminated as well — and up the food chain it goes.”

Mercury can, according to Reset.org, “reduce reproductive abilities of fish, impair their growth and development, cause behavioral abnormalities, alter their blood and oxygen exchange, damage sensory processes and can also be fatal. Contaminated plankton creates contaminated fish, contaminated birds, and might in turn indirectly contaminate humans in the future.”


“Compounds of hexavalent chromium, used in the production of metal housings, are highly toxic and carcinogenic to people,” says Greenpeace. Ronald Eisler’s early study, “Chromium Hazards to Fish, Wildlife, and Invertebrates: A Synoptic Review,” indicates that fish and marine life may be suffering the same results. In his study rainbow trout gill, liver, kidney, stomach and digestive tract show the most damage after Chromium exposure.


Cadmium, according to Greenpeace, is used in “rechargeable computer batteries, contacts and switches and in older CRTs, can bioaccumulate in the environment and is highly toxic, primarily affecting human kidneys and bones.” UK Marine Special Areas of Conservation adds that cadmium is used:

  • on protective plating on steel
  • in stabilizers for PVC
  • in pigments in plastics and glass
  • as electrode material in nickel-cadmium batteries (increased in recent years)
  • as a component of various alloys (decreased in recent years)

UK Marine SAC indicates that “salmonids [are] particularly susceptible to cadmium. Sub-lethal effects in fish, notably malformation of the spine, have been reported. The most susceptible life-stages are the embryo and early larva, while eggs are the least susceptible.” What’s more: UK Marine SAC indicates that the world’s increasing temperatures do not bode well for cadmium toxicity in marine life. It says, “Increasing temperature increases the uptake and toxic impact.”

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are, according to Greenpeace, “one of several classes of brominated compound in widespread use as flame retardant additives in plastics and foams, including plastic casings of electronic equipment.” Highly bioaccumulative and toxic, some PBDEs detected in indoor air and dusts in the workplace and in the home “also occur in almost every part of the environment, including sediments (Allchin & Morris 2002), freshwater and marine fish (Asplund et al. 1999a, b), birds eggs (Hites 2004) and even whales from the deep oceans and the Arctic (Ikonomou et al. 2002).”

Isabelle Groc at WildWhales.org tells us in 2005, “In the Strait of Georgia, [Peter Ross, a marine mammal toxicologist] found that PBDEs had the third-highest concentration in a typical seal diet after PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and the persistent pesticide DDT. PBDE levels were even higher in the Puget Sound diet, where they had the second-highest concentration after PCBs.” Ross indicated that PBDE levels are increasing exponentially, and will surpass PCBs by 2020. PBDEs accumulate in the blubber of these animals and in killer whales, an already endangered species. An Ironic siutation, considering people in the 19th century burned whale blubber to illuminate city streets and houses.

“Laboratory experiments,” writes Groc, “have revealed that exposure to PBDEs is associated with endocrine disruption, impaired reproduction, and reduced immunity; affects neurological development; and disrupts vitamin A and thyroid hormones. The impact of these chemicals is most likely felt when animals are stressed due to limited food supply, pathogens or other environmental stressors. They are most toxic when an organism metabolizes the fat in which they are stored.


Triphenyl Phosphate (TPP) Triphenyl phosphate, according to Greenpeace, “has long been used as flame retardant, primarily in phenolic and phenylene oxide-based resins […] and was present at levels up to 10% by weight of the plastic in the outer covers of some computer monitors.” With the prevelance of TPP in the environment, the damage has been done — and it continues. “TPP is the most acutely toxic to aquatic life of all the triaryl phosphates in common use (IPCS 1991),” says Greenpeace.

A Worsening Problem

Looking at the historical and unfolding facts, the fix seems to get farther from our grasp.

The global market for electronic equipment is expanding while the lifespan of many products shrinking; consequently, the wastestream of obsolete electrical and electronic products, already vast, is  growing. According to the United Nations University Global E-Waste Monitor, toal e-waste generated in 2014 was nearly 42 million metric tons, and this is forecast to increase to 50 million metric tons in 2018.

At Belmont we are doing everything we can to shift the mindset of both producers and consumers away from “e-waste” and to “eMaterials”—to illuminate the significant value in these materials, to extend their lifecycles, and ultimately to responsibly recycle devices with minimal environmental impact when they can no longer be reused.

Here are some other ways eMaterial producers and consumers can help clean up our oceans:

  • Work toward product designs and manufacturing techniques focused on nontoxic materials, ease of repair, and longer overall device lifecycles
  • Advocating for increased producer responsibility for end-of-life waste management
  • Supporting research on the health of ecosystems and ways to mitigate or repair the damage from eMaterials that do find their way into the environment
  • Supporting stringent regulations for formal recycling and proper disposal methods
  • Purchasing fewer electronic products and holding onto them longer

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments!