Fix the E-Waste Problem: What We Should Be Doing with Our Used ElectronicsE-waste is a general term for discarded electronic components that contains everything from cell phones to disk drives. It is causing a crisis in the developing world. Only 12.5% are recycled worldwide. E-waste is different from other forms of trash because electronic waste contains toxic metals like lead and cadmium leach into groundwater sources if not properly managed. This is common in developing countries, where nations simply do not have the resources to properly limit water and air pollution. It is time to fix the e-waste problem.

The Problem

The processing of e-waste is difficult because of the many elements in computer chips and other techs. Paper, a major component of traditional solid waste, is recycled 64.7% of the time because the methods to get the paperback are just that much easier. The United Nations claims that 10-40% of the total e-waste from America goes abroad to countries in Asia. In addition, as little as 0.13% of all waste properly disposed of there. India is starting to make its own e-waste with the growth of the middle class. This leads to many unseemly sights in places like Taiwan, China and Pakistan.

One PBS reporter’s finding of a large lot stacked 5m high – just with printers. Workers, who are women and children, use unsafe and known to be carcinogenic chemicals like sulfuric acid to dissolve the plastic in the printers. People do get gold and silver out of this process. However, this comes at great cost to themselves and their communities, as breaking down this waste contributes to pollution. WHO estimates that one in four people die worldwide due to complications with contamination. Additionally, the way we manage e-waste certainly is not helping.

What Can We Do With Our Used Electronics?

The problem seems overwhelming and hard to solve. However, many companies and NGOs alike are tackling the issue. After e-waste is managed correctly, it has the potential to make or save money. There are three main ways to improve the health of people in Asia with respect to discarded electronics, and in the following order:

  • Reduce. Samsung, a well-known company based in South Korea, wants to make their products last longer. Although there are short-term benefits for having customers update their technology every few years, the corporation externalizes costs of what to do with those electronics after people use them to poorer nations. This leads to public relations issues and potentially a loss of profit. It plans to increase life by creating places where people can repair their phones and larger appliances. Also, people can change the design to make sure components do not break in the first place.
  • Reuse. Many people in countries where e-waste is going do not have internet access. Why not refurbish old devices from developed countries to expand access? This extends the life of technology which should ultimately reduce the amount that ends up discarded. Furthermore, one charity that sends technology worldwide is InterConnection. Unfortunately, some security risks rise with this. Since computer data is very hard to wipe, the data in electronics can end up in the wrong hands.
  • Upcycle. Not only recycling, but upcycling is a promising way to fix the e-waste problem. Upcycling turns products into something with more value, not less as is the case with paper or plastic when they’re made into something new. For example, the gold in the NoWa necklace is entirely from discarded cell phones. Promoting safe labor practices to make these pieces can also prevent situations like what happened with the printers in Vietnam.

Solving large problems like fixing the e-waste problem may seem daunting. If we think creatively, we can make the world a better place by encouraging our countries to make smart and informed decisions about how to responsibly manage hazardous materials from used electronics.

Michael Straus

Photo: Flickr

E-Waste in Developing CountriesE-waste in developing and developed countries is when electronics are used, and they come to the end of their lifecycle. In contrast to other forms of waste, disposal of  e-waste is specific, in order to protect humans and the environment from the harmful materials within; yet, impoverished countries do not have the resources nor funds to dispose of their e-waste properly.

Due to these countries improperly disposing of their waste, toxic chemicals then leak into the environment. In turn, health hazards arise. Below illustrates the prevalence of e-waste around the globe, recycling e-waste methods, impacts on human health and possible solutions eliminating excess e-waste in developing countries.

Presence of E-Waste

As technology advances exponentially around the world, consumers are constantly purchasing, upgrading, replacing and discarding their electric products. These products include computers, printers, televisions, cell phones, microwaves and washers, and dryers. Among the developed nations, the U.S. alone throws away 400 million tons of electronic items per year. In contrast, the European Union produces 8.9 million tons of e-waste and Japan produces 4 million tons. In total, the world produces 50 million tons of e-waste a year. It is an estimate that the world’s population will be discarding 60 million tons of e-waste by 2021.

The Differences in Recylcing E-Waste

Both developing and developed countries recycle their e-waste. In the formal recycling facilities of developed countries, electronics are disassembled, separated and categorized by material. They are then cleaned and shredded for further sorting. It is necessary hat recycling companies adhere to health and safety rules. They must also use pollution-control technologies to decrease the health and environmental hazards of handling e-waste.

This process is expensive, and to avoid spending the large amount of money needed to recycle e-waste formally, developed countries illegally ship their e-waste to developing countries for disposal. However, these developing countries do not have the means to recycle their e-waste formally. This is why countries, like Nigeria and Ghana, recycle their e-waste in informal ways.

Within developing countries, the informal e-waste sector includes sites where the extraction of valuable components of electronics happen using crude recycling and disposal methods. Families and individual workers depend on the extraction of valuable metals for an income. Metals include gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, lithium and cobalt.

Effects of Chemicals in E-Waste

However, these electronics also contain toxic heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium. They also include polluting PVC plastic and hazardous chemicals like brominated flame retardants. These chemicals remain in electronics after extraction of valuable materials. They are burned, buried and discharged into waterways. Furthermore, these chemicals can find their way into the air, earth, water and ultimately into food.

Victims of contamination from e-waste in developing countries can experience both direct and indirect exposure. Direct contact with hazardous materials from e-waste in both formal and informal recycling settings can cause increases in stillbirths, spontaneous abortions, premature births and lower birth weights. They can also cause increases in mutations, congenital malformations, abnormal thyroid function, lead levels, decreased lung function and neurobehavioral disturbances.

Intervention in Recycling E-Waste

To decrease the amount of informal recycling of e-waste in developing countries, the United Nations created the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. This organization bans the trading of hazardous waste between nations. Sadly, this policy fails to reduce informal recycling due to a general lack of governance and enforcement resources.

Renne Cho, a staff writer for the Earth Institute, lists six solutions in research that disposers should consider and practice globally to solve the global e-waste crisis. These six solutions are: designing better products, repairing and reusing devices already owned, extending producer responsibility, improving the recycling system, making recycling more convenient and making our economy more circular.

In regard to improving the recycling system, one strategy proposed to alleviate e-waste in developing countries is taking advantage of the large collection network of informal recyclers existing. Instead of eliminating this network, developing countries can utilize these companies to bring their collective e-waste to the formal sector.

Another solution to reduce the amount of e-waste illegally shipped to developing countries is for countries to invest in the resources necessary to provide the enforcement and supervision that will restrict the importation of e-waste.

The rapid rate at which consumers are now purchasing, upgrading, replacing and discarding electronics gives little reason to believe the e-waste crisis will end soon. More awareness about how e-waste is impacting the health of men, women and children in developing countries is necessary.

– Jacob Stubbs
Photo: Flickr