Think about your e-waste this Christmas

Every year tons of electronic material are thrown away causing environmental and health related problems.
By Curtis Palmer [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

During the holidays, many people around the world will receive brand new mobile, phones and laptops. Others may have taken advantage of the Boxing Day sales to buy new household items such as hoovers and washing machines. But what happens to the old phones, laptops and hoovers?

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has predicted only 20% of electronics have been recycled in 2017 globally, leading to $55billion dollars of materials including gold and iron being wasted annually. The United Nations University (UNU) has predicted that £7billion of gold alone, is wasted by not recycling electronics.

Dumping of e-waste

What exactly happened to electronic waste, known as e-waste, is not clear as very few countries have data on it, however, e-waste landfills in developing countries have been growing in recent years. Some e-waste is exported to Africa and Asia, where people in informal settlements manually break down electronics and sell on valuable materials. Agbogbloshie, Ghana, for instance, is an informal settlement that receives e-waste from North America and Europe and is one of the largest e-waste settlements in Africa. Whilst e-waste contains valuable materials, it also has toxins that impact the health of not only e-waste workers, but the people living in the settlement. Researchers at UNU have recently released a study which dramatically links children living in e-waste settlements and increased risk of impaired cognitive development and reduced growth. Research from the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission has shown toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead put e-waste workers at risk of cancers and respiratory illnesses.

Environmental implications

There are also environmental implications of toxins, which contaminate water and soils. In Guiyu, Hong Kong there is a severe water shortage due to toxins from e-waste landfill site contaminating water sources. 82% of children in Guiyu have lead levels over 100, which is higher than what is considered safe. It has been estimated that e-waste contains 4,400 tonnes of ozone depleting toxins which may enter the atmosphere. The ozone layer protects the planet from the Sun’s more harmful rays and depletion of the ozone layer has devastating global effects.

E-waste is exported to developing countries from developed countries including the UK and USA. While it is illegal for e-waste to be exported abroad, companies simply label the waste as ‘reusable’ which is legal. The recycling companies appear to be legitimate businesses that claim to safety recycle e-waste, but due to the cost of recycling, it is cheaper to export the products.

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The UK’s e-waste issue

The UK is one of the biggest offenders of generating e-waste, sitting just behind countries such as China and India, despite having a significantly smaller population. According to UK’s Environmental Agency, 200,000 tonnes of e-waste is shipped to Africa each year, with only 30% being recycled through recognised schemes. This figure is well below the European Union guideline of recycling 85% of electronics by 2019. A UNU researcher has found the lifespan of electronics in the UK is shorter than other European countries. However, this lifespan is shorter due to consumers buying electronics more often, rather than electronics breaking earlier.

Possible solutions

With electronics becoming cheaper and new technologies advancing, e-waste is likely to increase each year. Companies have started to take some responsibility and reduce the amount of toxic material in their products, however, consumers can also take responsibility. There are recognised, legitimate recycling companies such as UK mobile phone recycler Envirofone and Computer Aid which give unwanted but working computers to schools in developing countries. Utilising these companies means electronics are recycled correctly and avoids being illegally exported abroad or ending up in landfills.

Companies also have a responsibility to recycle their own products, under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive(WEEE) that become EU law in 2003. This legislation means companies must take back their products from consumers, whether they are faulty or not so they can be disposed of correctly. Consumers can either take their electronics in to the company store or arrange for a collection. However, the lack of public awareness of this legislation means, consumers do not know how easy it is for them to properly dispose of their electronics for free.

Legislation in place?

While the EU has a legislation in place, the United States doesn’t have an official e-waste legislation at a federal level and is one of two countries that signed but did not ratify the Basel Convention Treaty. The Basel Convention is an international treaty that came into force in 1992, to reduce the amount of hazardous waste being exported, particularly to developing countries. Of course, since this was set 25 years ago, there has been the rise of mobiles and computers due to the advances in technology. In 2012, a new agreement was signed by ITU and the Secretariat of the Basel Convention that looks to reduce the negative impacts of e-waste and to set standards. However, with e-waste increasing year on year, and worsening impacts, the new agreement does not seem to be enough.

Combating the issue of e-waste is difficult and requires proper legislation that is not only followed, but understood by consumers. A small step in reducing e-waste and its impacts is properly recycling old electronics this Christmas, at a period of time that sees so many electronics being thrown out.

Ailish Craig

Ailish Craig is a recent Geography and Economics student from the University of Southampton, where she enjoyed the conflict in interests between the two subjects. Ailish has spent time volunteering in Nicaragua, on a natural resource management and sustainability project. She has a keen interest in how developing countries will be effected by climate change and how impacts can be minimised, as well as women’s rights.
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