Environmental Issues: Electronic and Nuclear Waste

Last Updated on 24/01/2021

Environmental Issues- Electronic and Nuclear Waste

Harshani Wijendra
Sri Lanka Institute of Textile & Apparel Technology (SLITA)
Email: harshani_bipasha@yahoo.com


What are Environmental Issues?
First, we’ll clarify what is Environment? Environment can be defined as “The surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates.” Or “The natural world, as a whole or in a particular geographical area, especially as affected by human activity. And also, Environment can be divided into two. They are;

  1. Natural Environment.
  2. Historical Environment.

1. Natural Environment
In biology and ecology, the environment is all of the natural materials and living things, including sunlight. This is also called the natural environment. The important things in the environment that we value are called natural resources. For example, fish, sunlight, and forests. These are renewable natural resources because more grow naturally when we use them. Non-renewable natural resources are important things in the environment that do not come back naturally, for example coal and natural gas.

Electronic and Nuclear Waste
Fig: Electronic and Nuclear Waste

2. Historical Environment
Environment is the events and culture that a person lived in. A person’s beliefs and actions are dependent on his environment. So, when we considering environment it is important & it is a responsibility to keep the environment safe & protect it. Earlier the environmental issue wasn’t a big problem. Environmental issues have been a concern for hundreds of years in different forms and in different nations. The U.S. started to pass legislation acts in 1972. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was created in 1970. In the 1970s the public begin to take note of environmental issues. In the 1960s is when environmental issues started to come into light in the United States, specifically air pollution and oil spills. The other issues were acid rain and air pollution, more specifically “NOx emission.” Environmental issues were a concern in the in the early 80s but it was not until the media started to cover more and more stories did it become a big concern. The media started to cover. Court cases covering environmental legal issues. After that time this topic of The Environmental issues were concerned by People in worldwide.

As we witness rapid expansion of economics and population growth, additional pressures are being exerted upon the already thinning natural resource base within and outside national boundaries. The rapid urban growth with rising poverty has led to encroachment of forest lands for various agricultural and non- agricultural cultural uses. As a result of those activities now there are more issues regarding the Environment. And they have been identified & organizations are more into minimizing these issues.

The identified 10 Major Environmental Issues are as follows:

  1. Global warming.
  2. Clean and Renewable.
  3. Energy Ocean system collapse.
  4. Electronic and Nuclear Waste.
  5. Water degradation.
  6. Land rush.
  7. Biodiversity conservation.
  8. Increased human population.
  9. New technologies.
  10. Habitat loss.

Environmental performence

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks how well countries perform on high-priority environmental issues in two broad policy areas: protection of human health from environmental harm and protection of ecosystems. As in EPI indicator, the overall score of Sri Lanka is 53.88 out of 100.

Global warming has been listed as the first major issue that is facing the World. And all these issues have been aroused mostly due to the Human activities. As we can’t discuss all the issues, I’m going to take the Electronic and Nuclear waste issue as it relevant to the current worldwide concern.

What is Electronic and Nuclear Waste?
Electronic waste is discarded electrical or electronic devices. There is a lack of consensus as to whether the term should apply to resale, reuse, and refurbishing industries, or only to a product that cannot be used for its intended purpose. Informal processing of electronic waste in developing countries may cause serious health and pollution problems, though these countries are also most likely to reuse and repair electronics. All electronic scrap components, such as CRTs, may contain contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants.

Nuclear waste is which produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining and enrichment, to reactor operation and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Much of this nuclear waste will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, leaving a poisonous legacy to future generations. Decommissioning nuclear facilities will also create large amounts of radioactive wastes. Many of the world’s nuclear sites will require monitoring and protection for centuries after they are closed down.

This type of wastes can cause massive pollution and several health complications. Millions of electronic products such as computers, laptops, television sets and mobile phones are discarded annually in developed countries and dumped into third world societies. The recovery of these products in the developing economies can result in the release of hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, heavy metals and many other toxic substances. This will harm the workers that are exposed to the dangerous materials. These wastes are the modern environmental threats due to technological advancements. The disposal of nuclear wastes from the reactors poses major risks to the environment. Nuclear wastes such as Plutonium-239 are very dangerous when released to the environment, same to isotopes. Currently there are 31 countries with nuclear reactors.

Shown below is a chart which shows the forecast of a global oil production.

IEA (International Energy Agency) Forecast of Global All Oil Production from 1990-2030
Fig: IEA (International Energy Agency) Forecast of Global All Oil Production from 1990-2030

Here is a chart which shows the world nuclear electric production till 2010.

The world nuclear electric production till 2010
Fig: The world nuclear electric production till 2010

Environmental Impact of Electronic and Nuclear Waste
The processes of dismantling and disposing of electronic waste in the third world lead to a number of environmental impacts as illustrated in the graphic. Liquid and atmospheric releases end up in bodies of water, groundwater, soil, and air and therefore in land and sea animals – both domesticated and wild, in crops eaten by both animals and human, and in drinking water. Guiyu in the Shantou region of China is a huge electronic waste processing area. And One study of environmental effects in Guiyu, China found the following:

  • Airborne dioxins – one type found at 100 times levels previously measured
  • Levels of carcinogens in duck ponds and rice paddies exceeded international standards for agricultural areas and cadmium, copper, nickel, and lead levels in rice paddies were above international standards
  • Heavy metals found in road dust – lead over 300 times that of a control village’s road dust and copper over 100 times.

The environmental impact of the processing of different electronic waste components

E-Waste ComponentProcess UsedPotential Environmental Hazard
Cathode ray tubes (used in TVs, computer monitors, ATM, video cameras, and more)Breaking and removal of yoke, then dumpingLead, barium and other heavy metals leaching into the ground water and release of toxic phosphor
Printed circuit board (image behind table – a thin plate on which chips and other electronic components are placed)De-soldering and removal of computer chips; open burning and acid baths to remove final metals after chips are removed.Air emissions as well as discharge into rivers of glass dust, tin, lead, brominated dioxin, beryllium cadmium, and mercury
Chips and other gold-plated componentsChemical stripping using nitric and hydrochloric acid and burning of chipsHydrocarbons, heavy metals, brominated substances discharged directly into rivers acidifying fish and flora. Tin and lead contamination of surface and groundwater. Air emissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals and hydrocarbons
Plastics from printers, keyboards, monitors, etc.Shredding and low temp melting to be reusedEmissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals and hydrocarbons
Computer wiresOpen burning and stripping to remove copperHydrocarbon ashes released into air, water and soil.

The global volume of spent fuel was 220,000 tons in the year 2000, and is growing by approximately 10,000 tons annually. Despite billions of dollars of investment in various disposal options, the nuclear industry and governments have failed to come up with a feasible and sustainable solution.

Most of the current proposals for dealing with highly radioactive nuclear waste involve burying it in deep underground sites. Whether the storage containers, the store itself, or the surrounding rocks will offer enough protection to stop radioactivity from escaping in the long-term is impossible to predict. Currently no options have been able to demonstrate that waste will remain isolated from the environment over the tens to hundreds of thousands of years. There is no reliable method to warn future generations about the existence of nuclear waste dumps.

What are the Solutions or Preventions?
The environmental consequences of rapid industrialization have resulted in countless incidents of land, air and water resources sites being contaminated with toxic materials and other pollutants, threatening humans and ecosystems with serious health risks. More extensive and intensive use of materials and energy has created cumulative pressures on the quality of local, regional and global ecosystems.

Environmental issues are addressed at a regional, national or international level by government organizations. The largest international agency, set up in 1972, is the United Nations Environment Programme. The International Union for Conservation of Nature brings together 83 states, 108 government agencies, 766 Non-governmental organizations and 81 international organizations and about 10,000 experts and scientists from countries around the world. International non-governmental organizations include Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and World Wide Fund for Nature. Governments enact environmental policy and enforce environmental law and this is done to differing degrees around the world.

One of the best solutions is Sustainability. Sustainability is the key to prevent or reduce the effect of environmental issues. There is now clear scientific evidence that humanity is living unsustainably, and that an unprecedented collective effort is needed to return human use of natural resources to within sustainable limits. For humans to live sustainably, the Earth’s resources must be used at a rate at which they can be replenished. Concerns for the environment have prompted the formation of Green parties, political parties that seek to address environmental issues. Initially these were formed in Australia, New Zealand and Germany but are now present in many other countries. We can there are many approaches to environmental protection.

Major 3 of them are:

  1. Voluntary environmental agreements
  2. Ecosystems approach
  3. International environmental agreements

1) Voluntary environmental agreements
In industrial countries, voluntary environmental agreements often provide a platform for companies to be recognized for moving beyond the minimum regulatory standards and thus support the development of best environmental practice. In developing countries, such as throughout Latin America, these agreements are more commonly used to remedy significant levels of non-compliance with mandatory regulation. The challenges that exist with these agreements lie in establishing baseline data, targets, monitoring and reporting. Due to the difficulties inherent in evaluating effectiveness, their use is often questioned and, indeed, the environment may well be adversely affected as a result. The key advantage of their use in developing countries is that their use helps to build environmental management capacity.

2) Ecosystems approach
An ecosystems approach to resource management and environmental protection aims to consider the complex interrelationships of an entire ecosystem in decision making rather than simply responding to specific issues and challenges. Ideally the decision-making processes under such an approach would be a collaborative approach to planning and decision making that involves a broad range of stakeholders across all relevant governmental departments, as well as representatives of industry, environmental groups and community. This approach ideally supports a better exchange of information, development of conflict-resolution strategies and improved regional conservation.

3) International environmental agreements
Many of the earth’s resources are especially vulnerable because they are influenced by human impacts across many countries. As a result of this, many attempts are made by countries to develop agreements that are signed by multiple governments to prevent damage or manage the impacts of human activity on natural resources. This can include agreements that impact factors such as climate, oceans, rivers and air pollution. These agreements have a long history with some multinational agreements being in place from as early as 1910 in Europe, America and Africa. Some of the most well-known multinational agreements include: the Kyoto Protocol, Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer and Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.


  1. Earth & Environmental Engineering (http://eee.columbia.edu/world-problems-department-solutions)
  2. Nuclear waste overboard (http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/nuclear/waste/)
  3. Electronic waste (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_waste)
  4. What is nuclear waste? (WHAT•IS•NUCLEAR?)
  5. No-nonsense public education on the use of nuclear energy to help with the energy problem) (http://www.whatisnuclear.com/articles/waste.html)
  6. What are Environmental Issues (Environment About) (http://www.environmentabout.com/)

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