Are We Drowning in a World of E-waste?

Energy & Climate Change, Waste & Resources

Are We Drowning in a World of E-waste?

In a world where people clamor for better, faster, grander, more portable devices, e-wastes are also piling up. And it is not a lovely sight.

With the production and purchase of electronic gadgets and modern products soaring at an unprecedented rate, the end of their “useful life” have every bit made e-waste a fast-growing problem in many locations. In 2016 alone, the global volume of e-waste rose to 44.7 million tons, according to the UN-backed study Global E-Waste Monitor. It was up by 8% from 2014’s 41 million tons.

“Environmental protection is one of the three pillars of sustainable development […] E-waste management is an urgent issue in today’s digitally dependent world, where use of electronic devices is ever increasing,” said Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). (The ITU is one of the bodies behind the Global E-Waste Monitor study.)

There are loose definitions for e-waste or electronic waste. Generally, the term refers to discarded products with a battery or plug. Included here are mobile phones, computers, monitors, televisions, stereos, audio equipment, refrigerators, and electrical toys.

E-waste is a universal waste, but the Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003 and other state laws in the US have rules on handling e-waste beyond the “universal waste” classification. Electronic products contain toxic components, like mercury, lead, and other metals, which give some e-wastes a hazardous nature. For instance, in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other parts of California, the local law indicates that cathode ray tubes from discarded monitors and TVs must be covered under a hazardous waste disposal system.

Why is e-waste increasing?

The primary reason why e-waste is increasing over the years is that people tend to junk old gadgets and buy the latest models. This practice is especially true during Christmas or holiday seasons where gift-giving and gift-buying have been the tradition. And because repairing a broken appliance or smartphone proves to be costly in most situations, buying a replacement seems to be the logical choice.

Though consumer’s behavior appears to be the leading cause, it is not solely the culprit. As you read below, you’ll soon find out that specific practices on e-waste management also contribute to e-waste accumulation.

Where do e-wastes go?

Before we dive into the improper practices surrounding the build-up of e-waste, have you ever wonder who takes our e-wastes?

Before African nations passed the Bamako Convention in 1988, most e-wastes were shipped to Africa. However, the convention did not halt the flow of e-wastes there. The Basel Convention was then put into force in 1992 to put a stop to this problem.

Later on, China became the primary destination of recyclable wastes from western countries, including plastic scraps and e-waste. Recovered materials fueled the country’s booming manufacturing sector, which made present China the economic giant in this field.

The town of Guiyo in Guangdong Province remains the main center of e-waste processing in China. But Guiyo received infamous attention in the 2000s, as Greenpeace reported environmental devastation due to unregulated processes of backyard recycling businesses.

This year, China introduced a massive change. The country stopped importing 24 types of foreign garbages, as the country decided to focus on its domestic waste problem. This sudden move has shaken waste exporters and recycling businesses worldwide, and recyclable wastes are in considerable bottlenecks in Europe and North America.

As the rest of the world is grappling with China’s ban, exporters sought alternatives markets for their recyclable wastes. India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam are up to the task, but none of them still can match what China can do.

The fate of e-waste

In 2016, an abysmal 20% or 8.9 million tons of global e-waste was subjected to recycling. So what happens to the rest?

According to an old data from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2000, more than 4.6 million tons of e-waste ended in landfills. While regulations have already been put in place in North America and Europe since then, it is still a typical scenario in many countries.

Some e-wastes also find their way into incinerators, but incineration is a highly discouraged practice as poisonous substances get released into the atmosphere.

Reuse of old electronic products is one sensible way of reducing the generation of so much e-waste. Developed countries have been exporting old but usable devices into developing nations (like in Africa prior to the Bamoko and Basel Conventions), so the “usable life” of these products gets stretched to their ultimate limit.

A problem, however, arises when reused devices have reached the dead end. It’s unlikely that developing nations are equipped when it comes to hazardous waste disposal activities.

The importance of e-waste recycling

This brings us back to recycling. Why must e-wastes be recycled then?

Two reasons: economics and environment.

E-waste is a rich source of valuable and reusable metals like copper, gold, platinum, and silver. Estimates peg recoverable materials at a staggering $64 billion. This money is no joke; if you let e-wastes get incinerated or dumped into landfills, just imagine the huge economic loss.

Apart from the lost value, toxic metals and other harmful substances are released into the environment if e-wastes are just dumped, incinerated or handled by improper means. Heavy metals like mercury and lead could leach into the soil, while ozone-destroying coolants from refrigerators will be released into the atmosphere.

Beyond economic losses and environmental impacts, improperly processed e-wastes also affect people’s health through one way or another. For example, released mercury could get into our food supply. Fish easily absorbs mercury in contaminated waters, and we (the clueless consumers) eat these fish. In the end. the toxic metal stays lodged inside our body, bidding its time before it can cause damage to our bodies.

Also, with incineration and dumping, many toxic chemicals are released into the air. This is not healthy either.

What should we do?

Despite existing legislation in 67 countries, the rate of e-waste collection and recycling remains low. Australia and New Zealand have the highest e-waste quantity—17.3 kg per inhabitant—and only 6% of the population are formally engaged in collection and recycling. By contrast, Europe has the highest collection at 35% rate.

While large-scale recycling has been the primary way for reducing the piling of e-wastes, it does not mean ordinary citizens like us cannot do our little share. For a start, the 3R principle of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is still applicable:

  • Reduce personal e-waste generation through smart buying and maintenance of electronic products.
  • Reuse still usable devices by donating or selling them.
  • Recycle products that are beyond repair. Participate in collection and recycling programs within your district.

While consumer behavior has driven the demand for newer and better electronics, let's mention that consumer awareness also plays a pivotal role in e-waste reduction. The simple knowledge of not throwing old phones or leftover keyboards into the trash bin can already go a long way in the fight against the e-waste problem. If none of us will participate, we will all be drowning in e-waste in no time.

Walter H. Singer is the CEO of ACTenviro, providing one stop bio - hazardous waste disposal services to various industries in Northern California.

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