The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines e-waste as “any appliance using electric power supply that has reached its end-of-life”. “End of life” of a product means the product is due to be discarded. The question then is; how do we discard electronic waste in an environmentally safe manner?
First, it is relevant to note that at a rate of 3-5% a year, electrical and electronic waste has been dubbed the fastest growing waste stream today. In fact it is estimated to be at about 20-50 million tons per year. Also, up to over 36 different chemical elements are usually incorporated into certain e-waste items and these chemicals are hazardous, complex and expensive to treat in an environmentally sound manner. and there is a general lack of legislation or enforcement surrounding it.
On top of this, e-waste also contains heavy metals, POPs and flame-retardants. These are usually divided into three main groups of substances that may be released during manufacture, recycling and material recovery and they include;
- original constituents of equipment, such as lead and mercury;
- substances that may be added during some recovery processes, such as cyanide;
- and substances that may be formed by recycling processes, such as dioxins.
The above substances pose significant human and environmental risks if not properly managed.
The pollution generated by e-waste processing brings about toxic or genotoxic effects on the human body, threatening not only our current human health but that of future generations living in the local environment as well.
Picture courtesy of Materials for Future Foundation
In China studies have shown that rudimentary recycling techniques coupled with the amounts of e-waste processed have already resulted in adverse environmental and human health impacts, including contaminated soil and surface water. Health problems reported in the last few years include diseases and problems related to the skin, stomach, respiratory tract and other organs.
Atmospheric pollution caused due to burning and dismantling activities coupled with long-range transport of pollutants cause occupational and secondary exposure.
The informal sector e-waste activities are another crucial source of environment-to-food- chain contamination. Contaminants may accumulate in agricultural lands and are eaten by grazing livestock. Many of these chemicals have a slow metabolic rate in animals, thereby bio-accumulating in tissues and then excreted in edible products such as eggs and milk.
However despite all these effects, the growth in electrical and electronic equipment production and their consequent consumption over the last two decades alone has been exponential. United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) in a 2007 report asserts that this has been fuelled by the fact that new market and demand was found in the developing countries with a generally high product obsolescence rate. The above, accompanied by the decrease in prices and increased internet use today only elevates matters. Worse still, is that about 80% of what is sent for recycling in the developed countries is shipped to the developing countries, mostly to Africa and Asia, albeit illegally. Moreover developing countries themselves are increasingly generating significant quantities of e-waste.
Needless to say, developing countries do not have highly technological or financial capacity to handle such e-waste and therefore cheaper recycling methods have to be adopted. These usually being crude and hazardous methods that only expose them to health and the environmental problems.
To minimize eminent environmental, health and social impacts, Electronics Take Back Coalition (ETBC, 2011) suggests that electronics should be;
- be carbon neutral
- maximize design for reparability, reuse and durable use
- plan for recyclability and ease of disassembly
- minimize toxicity
- minimize use of raw virgin materials
- invest in solutions that go beyond our current dominant technologies
- actively engage communities and stakeholders
- re-use and apply zero waste policies
It is also imperative to target electrical and electronics manufacturers by introducing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation and encouraging initial designs to be green, long lived, upgradeable and built for recycling. For example, some developing countries have taken plausible steps to set policies that can govern the e-waste disposal. Most notably, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal and Peru that have introduced pre-processing technologies with a focus on capacity building. The USA, Japan and china have also amended their e-waste management laws to include various strategies of mitigating e-waste problems and solutions that lead to DfE (Design for Environment) or Green IT. Policies should however be holistic, targeting all aspects of electronics production, not only greenhouse gas production or the phase-out of certain chemicals.
A UNEP study also recognised the need for both individual and corporate initiatives to take on alternative business models with financial incentives, the development of innovation hubs and the inclusion of informal e-waste recyclers. Also, in finding international solutions, like ETBC suggests, inter-agency cooperation is absolutely important. Stakeholders should have an understanding not only of the waste flow but of the government bodies responsible for regulating it. For instance, the 1992 Basel Convention, signed by 182 of governments, on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal. Although the Convention does not regulate secondhand items and some e-waste scrap”, it has played a role in banning exportation of obsolete products and engineering waste solutions.
In regard to taking responsibility, producers should reduce and eliminate hazardous substances in their products, produce long-lasting products which are simple to recycle and put in place effective take-back programs. Therefore since electronic use is only going to increase, effective regulation must be combined with incentives for recyclers in the informal sector not to engage in destructive processes. Cheap, safe and simple processing methods for introduction into the informal sector are currently lacking; hence, multidisciplinary solutions like raising awareness among consumers and e-waste recyclers in the informal economy, integration of the informal sector with the formal, creating green jobs, enforcing legislation and labor standards, and eliminating practices which are harmful to human health and the environment are vital in addition to technical solutions.