The Scourge of E-Waste and Potential Remedies

e-waste-burningDaily life has been made far more efficient, and glamorous, as technology improves at phenomenal rates. We are encouraged to go paperless, and drastically reduce waste from paper materials. However, technology has its own waste issues to deal with. Electronic waste (or e-waste), is the fastest growing waste stream, and its disposal is a major environmental concern in all parts of the world. When new technology does out with the old, our current model of disposing of ‘outdated’ technology is harming people, profits and most importantly, the planet.

More than 50 million of tons of e-waste is generated globally and the quantity is rapidly increasing with each passing year (Zafar, 2015). Less than 5% of which is being recycled, or reused appropriately. The content of this waste includes toxic materials as well as valuable and energy-intensive precious metals (Allam, 2009).

Televisions, toaster ovens, you name it, you will find old models no longer being used, stacking up in landfills around the world. If current consumption rates pattern continue, two planets will be needed by 2050 (Allam, 2009). Effort towards more sophisticated methods of dealing with E-Waste has numerous advantages, including: public health, job creation, money saved by firms in procurement of raw materials, and new uses for public spending that would have otherwise gone towards environmental cleanup.

In developing countries, the capacity for safe recovery methods and disposal are lacking. There is clear evidence that the informal recovery industry exploits women and child labourers who cook circuit boards, burn cables, and submerge equipment in toxic acids to extract precious metals such as gold (Seitz, 2014). A vast majority of the workers involved in e-waste recycling in developing countries are afflicted with severe respiratory problem.

E-Waste workers often work in pathetic conditions

E-Waste workers often work in pathetic conditions

What businesses and governments can do? 

Create an environmentally sound e-waste recycling chain. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the following steps are appropriate:

  • De-manufacturing into sub-assemblies and components – this involves the manual disassembly of a de- vice or component to recover value.
  • Depollution – the removal and separation of certain materials to allow them to be handled separately to minimize impacts, including batteries, fluorescent lamps and cathode ray tubes (CRTs)
  • Materials separation – manually separating and preparing material for further processing
  • Mechanical processing of similar materials – this involves processing compatible plastic resins, metals or glass from CRTs to generate market-grade commodities
  • Mechanical processing of mixed materials – this involves processing whole units followed by a series of separation technologies
  • Metal refining/smelting – after being sorted into components or into shredded streams, metals are sent to refiners or smelters. At this stage, thermal and chemical management processes are used to extract metals.

What You Can Do:

  • Recycle: look for e-waste recycling businesses in your area. There are many organizations who will take your E-waste free of charge! Large corporations like Sony and Samsung have take-back programs.
  • Up-cycle: you can find great art ideas on the internet for making new art out of old materials
  • Start your own E-waste recycling business  

References and Recommended Reading

  1. Allam, H. and Inauen, S. (2009): E-Waste Management Practices in the Arab Region. Centre for Environment and Development for the Arab Region (CEDARE), Cairo, Egypt. 
  2. Baldé, C.P., Wang, F., Kuehr, R., Huisman, J. (2015), The global e-waste monitor – 2014, United Nations University, IAS – SCYCLE, Bonn, Germany (https://i.unu.edu/media/unu.edu/news/52624/UNU-1stGlobal-E-Waste-Monitor-2014-small.pdf)
  3. Basel Convention, 2012, Lundgren, 2012 
  4. Seitz, J. (2014), Analysis of existing e-waste practices in MENA countries -2014, The Regional Solid Waste Exchange of Information and Expertise Network in Mashreq and Maghreb Countries, SWEEP-Net, Deutsche Gesellschaft, (http://www.sweep-net.org/sites/default/files/RA%20E-WASTE.pdf).
  5. Zafar, S. (2015), Significance of e-waste management, EcoMENA, Qatar, (http://www.ecomena.org/tag/e-waste-management-in-middle-east/). 

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About Lydia Anne Scherr

Lydia Scherr has a Masters degree in Climate and Society from Columbia University, is associated with United Nations program for Harmony with Nature, and is currently working as a research and innovation consultant in the United States and China.
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