The Problem with E-Waste: How the Rich Industrialized Nations Deal with Electronic Junk

Home Environment The Problem with E-Waste: How the Rich Industrialized Nations Deal with Electronic Junk
The Problem with E-Waste: How the Rich Industrialized Nations Deal with Electronic Junk

London, United Kingdom: Just a few weeks ago, Fortune reported that Apple sold 30 million units of the iPhone X, its most expensive mobile device, in the last quarter of 2017. While analysts say that this is not record-breaking, the number is still astonishingly high considering that Apple just started selling the iPhone X in November last year.

But what did users do with their old devices? — Did they sell it? Did they keep it? Did they give it to someone? Did they throw it away?

The answers to these questions are vital as discarded electronics pile up. In 2016 alone, there was 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste. The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017 emphasizes that this is practically as much as 4,500 Eiffel towers put together. This is what former UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner referred to as a “tsunami of e-waste rolling out over the world.”

Of course, this is not just limited to mobile phones. Electronic waste or e-waste has been defined by the United Nations University’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UN-IAS) “to cover items of all types of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by the owner as waste without the intention of re-use.” Broken washing machines, television sets, tablets, laptops, radios, USBs, MP3 players, lightbulbs, etc. are all covered under this definition. What is alarming is the fact that even if all of these items are still repairable, people tend to throw them away without a second thought as it’s sometimes cheaper to buy brand new appliances rather than repairing or recycling them. Statistics show that only about 25 percent of e-waste is properly recycled. This is further compounded by the planned obsolescence of these devices, most especially in the case of smartphones and other gadgets, and the continued marketing campaigns of manufacturers in order to get people to frequently upgrade to the latest models. Oftentimes, e-waste end-up in developing countries in Africa and Asia as they tend to serve as the dumping ground for electronic devices.

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The Problem with E-Waste- What Really Happens to Our Electronic Waste?

Know that improper e-waste disposal has detrimental effects on health and the environment. Your old computer monitor, refrigerator and mobile phone contains a lot of toxic substances. Mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, among others, hide in the wirings, circuit boards and connections inside these electrical products. When thrown away, these toxic chemicals can seep into landfills and may affect water sources or may be released into the air and impact the health of nearby communities. What’s more alarming are the issues of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. Bioaccumulation refers to the build-up of toxic substances in the bodies of plants, animals and people. In humans, these can lead to different types of illnesses depending on the toxic chemicals. Meanwhile, biomagnification refers to its effects on the food chain when a smaller animal, say a plankton, ingest mercury. This is in turn eaten by fish that will be consumed by humans. When this happens, it becomes more dangerous, perhaps leading to the Minamata disease that causes numbness of hands and feet, weakness of muscles, vision damage, among others, including paralysis and death.

In developing countries, e-waste is being recycled by an informal sector. In India, about 95 percent of these recyclers operate under government radar, often without safety equipment, and involve child labor. These children are oftentimes not aware of the health risks of these activities and experience health issues that hamper their ability to work even when they are just at the age of 40.

Fortunately, the Global E-Waste Monitor 2017 reports positive developments in terms of e-waste legislation across countries.

“In January 2017, approximately 4.8 billion people were covered by national legislation, which is 66% (67 countries) of the world population. Improvements have been made since 2014, when only 44% (61 countries) was covered,” the report reads.

Europe is leading in e-waste regulations with its Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Drive (WEEE) and the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (ROHS). The WEEE mandates electronic products producers to dispose of e-waste and provides a set collection of requirements for households. Meanwhile, the ROHS bans the use of hazardous substances.

The United States has a National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship that “provides recommendations on steps the federal government, businesses, and all Americans can take” when it comes to electronics waste.

The Problem with E-Waste- What Happens to Our Electronic Junk?

There are also multilateral initiatives. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, which has been signed by 186 countries, seeks to stop “environmentally and socially detrimental hazardous waste trading patterns.” E-waste contains hazardous elements that will also negatively impact the health and environment. The Basel Convention seeks to limit the movements of hazardous wastes and its transfer from developed to developing countries. There is also Step or Solving the E-Waste Problem, a multi-stakeholder initiative led by UN University that aims to address the e-waste issue among its members. Canada, Mexico and the U.S. are also working together for the sound management of e-waste through the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC).

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While all of these initiatives are positive, the caveat is in terms of the implementation. Canada is a party to the Basel Convention, yet in 2013, it sent to the Philippines 103 container vans with 1,300 tons of trash declared as recyclable materials. BAN Toxics, a Philippine NGO took the lead in bringing the issue to the Basel Convention, for them to intervene. In 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to taking action on the issue. Unfortunately, the trash still remains on Philippine soil. Meanwhile, there are still e-waste products that continue to be dumped in developing countries.

Hopefully, the current e-waste regulations will be better implemented in the future. But while loopholes in the system are being fixed by governments and multilateral bodies, we turn our sights on how we can help as individuals as it’s our shared responsibility in curbing e-waste since we contribute to the problem.

Have any great ideas you’d like to share? Feel free to leave a comment below and let’s get the ball rolling.

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