It is impossible to imagine the modern world without electronics. Smartphones that serve as umbilical cords to the digital world. Fridges and air conditioning systems that keep our food fresh and homes cool. Computers, blenders, games consoles, electric cars, solar panels. The list of gadgets we use every day is near endless.
These inventions have undoubtedly transformed our lives for the better – allowing us access to information and resources, instant communication and freeing up our time so we can get on with doing things we enjoy.
But every silver lining has a cloud, and in this case, it’s a big one: e-waste.
A growing problem
Each year, the electronics industry generates up to 41 million tonnes of e-waste. As the number of consumers rises, and the lifespan of devices shrinks in response to demand for the newest and best, that figure could reach 50 million tonnes this year.
In our thoughtless throwaway culture, this may not seem like a big deal. It is. The metals and other materials studded in the Earth’s crust are not finite, yet we throw them away like they are. Coffee machines, fridges, electric cables, computers, televisions and old analogue radios are piling up in landfills across the world.
And e-waste often contains hazardous materials, which pose risks to human health and the environment, especially in developing countries.
“Electronic goods are increasing exponentially in number, variety and complexity, and all of them include both valuable and hazardous materials,” said Keith Alverson, head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-hosted International Environmental Technology Centre, which looks at ways to increase recycling and handle waste in a more-sound manner.
“The challenge of re-using, recycling and properly disposing of electronic waste is already enormous, and will grow – be it in individual households, in the private sector or in countries around the world.
We need to think carefully about, and implement solutions for, e-waste as we continue to benefit more and more from electronic goods and services.”
A criminal enterprise
“It is illegal to export e-waste, but extensive smuggling networks classify the waste as secondhand goods and dump it in places like Ghana, India, Pakistan and Brazil,” said Dr. Christian Nellemann, head of the Rapid Response Unit at the Rhipto-Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, and author of UNEP’s recent e-waste report.
The Basel, Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions regulate the movement and disposal of waste, but criminals and dodgy dealers find ways around the rules.
Tricks include declaring waste batteries as plastic or mixed metal scrap, and cathode ray tubes and computer monitors as metal scrap. Both small and large-scale smuggling techniques can be seen all over the world, from organized truck transport across Europe and North America to the use of major smuggling hubs in South Asia, including widespread container transport by sea.
Insufficient control over waste removal is another loophole exploited by criminals, who collect payments for the safe disposal of waste, which they later dump or recycle unsafely.
© Basel Action Network
Human health at risk
The illegal dumping of waste in developing countries is where health problems start to creep in. Inappropriate methods like open burning are often used by the informal sector to recover valuable materials, bringing heavy impacts on human health and the environment.
Harmful emissions come from lead in circuit boards or cathode ray tube glass, mercury in liquid crystal display (LCD) backlights, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and the accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food. Inhalation of toxic fumes from reagants such as cyanide or other strong leaching acids to extract rare earth metals, copper and gold also cause health issues.
Children in developing countries are exposed as family members try to recycle at home or are forced to recycle themselves, or simply by living or going to school close to dumps. They are especially vulnerable to the health risks as their bodies are still developing.
Getting recycling right
Key to solving a lot of these problems – and ensuring that we don’t run out of metals in decades to come, is better, more-formalized recycling.
According to research by the International Resource Panel (IRP), recycling rates have been consistently low: less than one-third of some 60 metals studied have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50 per cent and 34 elements are below one per cent recycling. This presents a valuable opportunity to reduce environmental degradation, energy and water use, and cut down on health impacts by doing it right.
“We need to address the full circle, establishing recycling systems and formalizing and subsidizing the informal handling systems,” said Nellemann. “We also need to address the significant involvement of organized crime in waste handling.”
Solutions to combat illegal and unsustainable handling of e-waste are emerging. Recovering valuable metals and other resources locked inside electronic products, for example, can reduce the amount of e-waste produced, diminishing pressure on the environment, creating jobs and generating income.
According to the IRP, designers must look at making materials such as rare earth metals in products easily recoverable at their end of use – including in green tech such as solar panels and wind turbine magnets. Binding agreements on classification of waste through the conventions will also be vital to prevent the dumping of waste in developing countries.
Partnerships in this area are growing. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations University, and the International Solid Waste Association this year formed the Global e-Waste Statistics Partnership to improve and collect worldwide e-waste statistics. The Global Partnership on Waste Management also looks at improving sound management of e-waste in developing countries, an area of work led by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
Mountains of e-waste are indeed growing across the globe, but this waste can be turned into a valuable resource that will protect human health and ensure humanity uses the planet’s increasingly strained resources more wisely.