Electronic Waste

With the average lifespan of some electric appliances, like computers, estimated to be 3-5 years, it’s little wonder landfill areas are clogged with discarded electronics.Globally, the debate about how best to manage electronic waste continues to rage, while in many parts of the world, an informal, unregulated electronic waste trade and recycling sector is in full bloom.

Author Anna Rees, 07.25.13

With the average lifespan of some electric appliances, like computers, estimated to be 3-5 years, it’s little wonder landfill areas are clogged with discarded electronics.

Globally, the debate about how best to manage electronic waste continues to rage, while in many parts of the world, an informal, unregulated electronic waste trade and recycling sector is in full bloom.

What is e-waste?

Electronic waste (or e-waste) is the term used to refer to electrical or electronic products that are nearing or have come to the end of their lifecycle such as televisions, office equipment, household appliances, computers, tablets and mobile phones. As technology rapidly evolves, and people purchase the latest “must-have” products before their existing equivalent has reached the end of its lifecycle, the volume of discarded electronic products continues to swell.

A report by the United Nations University found that only 20 per cent of the 8.9 million metric tons of global, electronic waste discarded in 2016. Though there has been an increase of 22 percent of the world’s population covered by national e-waste management laws in the last few years, there is still much to be done in certain regions. The largest global producer of e-waste is the USA, with China closely following in second place. The two countries are responsible for around 32 per cent of global electronic waste. 

The growing amount of electronic devices that are being thrown away is posing a challenge to waste management systems. Disposing of these gadgets using conventional means (i.e. throwing them in the garbage bin) can be hazardous. Electric appliances and devices contain metals and components, such as mercury and lead, that, if not extracted and handled properly, can seep into soil and water if the device ends up in landfill and cause contamination. E-waste accounts for around two per cent of waste in landfills yet is responsible for around 70 per cent of the toxic waste found there.

Proper recycling of electronic devices not only ensures that hazardous materials are safely removed, it also means these materials can be reused, minimising the need to find and extract raw versions for new products. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for every million mobile phones recycled, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. The 41.8 million tonnes of e-waste that was discarded in 2014 was estimated to represent 52 billion USD worth of potentially reusable resources, however less than one-sixth was recycled or made available for use. There are environmental benefits to boot. The EPA states that recycling one million laptops equates to saving the energy equivalent of power for 3,500 US homes in a year. Some countries and electronics companies have recycling schemes in place but the sheer volume with which we throw out our old gadgets and replace them with new ones can make it difficult for these schemes to adequately process all electronic waste.

Various Methods of Disposal

There are a number of systems in place around the world to dispose of e-waste, some more sustainable than others:

Take-back Systems

Official take-back systems whereby e-waste is collected by a particular organisation, such as an electronics company or government waste management body, either from designated collection points such as shops, municipal locales or via tailored pick up or mail in services and taken to a facility where reusable materials are recovered under safe conditions. There’s a catch though, as a 2018 story from Wired points out, with some recyclers redirecting the e-waste they collect to low-income countries for improper disposal there (more on that below). Breaking a product down to its raw materials and recycling the parts is a good idea in theory however, low-income countries where e-waste is imported are home to operations where parts are taken apart by hand under non-regulated conditions, increasing workers risk of exposure to highly toxic chemicals contained in the parts.

Donations and Reselling

Whether through informal methods, such as giving away (or selling) your unwanted electronic goods, or more official means, like donating electrical appliances and computers to non-profits or charitable projects, donating your devices is a way to sustainably give them a second life while they’re still usable. Organisations like TechSoup accept products, hardware and device donations and forward these on to non-profits needing to upgrade their equipment while RESET’s project partner Linux4Afrika accepts donated computer hardware to fit out with Linux software and install in classrooms in East Africa to help bridge the digital divide.

Some products are given new life and donated to schools or orphanages while more entrepreneurial-minded people have developed innovative ways of reusing scrap electronics.

Trash Bins

Disposal along with regular household waste whereby smaller electronic devices (such as USB sticks, cables and the like) are thrown away along with conventional household garbage. This means the e-waste generally ends up in landfill or at waste incineration plants. Incinerating electronic waste has numerous ill effects on the environment including the release of lead, cadmium, mercury and brominated flame retardants into the atmosphere. In the informal e-waste sector, workers who burn these products usually lack protective equipment while working.

Landfill, the Informal Trade and a World of Waste

Regardless of where it originates, around 70 to 80 per cent of all the world’s electronic waste ends up in landfills in developing countries. Countries that export used electronic goods must comply with the Basel Convention which looks to prevent high-income countries from illegally dumping hazardous waste in low-income countries. Yet, a considerable amount of the used electronic goods that are exported to poorer regions are near or at the end of their lifecycle. This issue is confounded as China in late 2017 has chosen to stop all imports of foreign-produced waste, leaving some states reeling as how to manage their recyclables. 

Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra in Ghana, is the site of one of the world’s largest dumping grounds for e-waste, with around 215,000 tonnes of unwanted and secondhand electronic goods from around the world ending up here every year. Shops and markets are dotted around the region selling some of the secondhand goods and there is a healthy refurbishment sector and repair cafes exist yet the amount of devices that end up here make it hard to adequately deal with it all. Tests carried out in the area have shown that levels of lead in the soil are twice as high as those allowed by the US EPA while analyses of breast milk from mothers in Agbogbloshie have found higher-than-normal levels of the toxic compounds polychlorinated biphenyls (found in old electronic equipment). This interactive portal by Al Jazeera provides good insight into e-waste in Agbogbloshie.

Traders in developing countries, either individuals or private organisations, buy unwanted electronic products from people and sell them at scrap markets. If the device is defunct, they have it disassembled to recover any materials they can such as copper, iron, silicon, silver and gold which are then, more often than not, shipped back to developed countries. The extraction of precious metals during the recycling process also provides the basis for a viable trade, with traders arguing that recycling these metals from existing products is better for the environment than mining for new ones. In India, for example, the informal recycling sector accounts for about 95 per cent of all e-waste recycling in the country, and provides an income to about 80,000 people, many of them migrant workers.

Recovering metals and materials from electronic devices, when not done under proper conditions, can be harmful to human health. Electronic gadgets contain around 60 chemical elements including lead, copper, manganese, mercury, nickel and more. A lot of the time, workers in the informal sector receive poor training and do not wear enough (or, sometimes, any) protective clothing, leaving them at risk of exposure to these chemical elements, some of which can be highly toxic. Additionally, acids are used to remove precious metals from hardware and in some places, child labour is used to collect and dismantle e-waste.

Rather than replace the technology and equipment used in these processes, there have been calls to find other ways to support workers in the informal sector to make use of their know-how and improve living and working conditions. In a controversial move, the Ghanaian government bulldozed part of Agbogbloshie in June 2015, leading to the forced displacement of some 20,000 slum dwellers and some believe this will lead to to scrapyards popping up elsewhere in Ghana. Rather than destroy Agbogbloshie, it has been argued, time and money should be put into assisting those in the informal e-waste sector. As Wired put it: ”Africa’s self-taught scrappers and refurbishers need support: business training from their government, recycling expertise from the international community, and technical support from the manufacturers who make the electronics they’re breaking apart.”

What’s Being Done

There are a number of top-down initiatives in place or being set up to help sustainably manage e-waste. A number laws have been passed at state level (for example, in New York) banning people from throwing e-waste in the trash or leaving it on the footpath. A number of electronics companies offer buy-back programmes, whereby users can ‘trade in’ their old device for store credit.

Following criticism that iPhones and iPads are particularly hard to dismantle and recycle due to their batteries being glued in, Apple has developed a robotic system called Liam which takes apart iPhones and safely recovers reusable materials for recycling purposes. Liam can process about 1.2 million handsets per year, which, as pointed out by Reuters, barely scratches of the surface of the 231 million phones Apple sold in 2015 alone. This is one of the sticking points – the sheer volume of products being discarded each year makes it difficult for all of it to be properly recycled and disposed of. This point was highlighted in the aforementioned report published by the United Nations University: ”Over the past two decades, policymakers, producers and recyclers in various countries have created specialised ‘take back and treatment systems’ to collect e-waste from final owners and process it in professional treatement facilities. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the collection and state-of-the-art treatment of e-waste is limited, and most nations are still without such e-waste management systems. There is a large portion of e-waste that is not being collected and treated in an environmentally-sound manner.”

Recognising the growing e-waste problem, the United Nations University launched the Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) initiative which carries out research and analysis on the status of global e-waste and works with over 60 partners worldwide to develop and implement e-waste management projects.

Initiatives such as Fairphone, which recycles e-waste to create new smartphones, have also arisen in response to our e-waste problem.

Fix It Yourself: the Rise of Repair Cafes and Workshops

One of the key arguments surrounding the handling of e-waste revolves around education, specifically that a lot of people are unaware of the importance of properly disposing of electronics and the negative impact on health and environment that improper disposal can have. And therefore, do not see the imperative of proper e-waste management.

In an effort to raise awareness about the impact of e-waste and minimise the amount of devices that are tossed out, a ‘repair it yourself’ movement has gathered momentum in the last few years, with community-run events and workshops teaching people how to make simple repairs to their gadgets themselves (instead of throwing them out and buying a new replacement).

 Repair Café Brussels Fixing an appliance at Repair Café Brussels

The Repair Cafe Foundation, home to a network of such events that take place around the world, got its start in 2009 in Amsterdam with the idea of demonstrating how easy it can be to fix things rather than throw them away. According to the Repair Cafe Foundation, almost 950 repair meet-ups in 24 countries were held in 2015. An estimated 200,000 objects (also including non-electronic devices) were fixed last year, which the organisation claims helped save approximately 200,000 kilograms of CO2 emissions.

London-based social enterprise The Restart Project is also actively engaged in this area, hosting a number of repair events in the UK, helping to set up repair networks and meetings in other countries and conducting awareness-building campaigns about e-waste.

The easiest way to deal with e-waste is, of course, to avoid creating it in the first place by repairing appliances and devices and only replacing them once they’ve reached the end of their lifecycle. But with our appetite for electronic devices seeming to be insatiable, concrete measures that deal with e-waste on a large scale and in a sustainable way are needed. A concerted effort involving citizens, the corporate sector and governments is needed in order to sustainably manage the growing number of gadgets that are being discarded every year.

Author: Anna Rees/ RESET editorial. Last update: May 2016

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