Imagine we disposed of our electronic waste (e-waste) in any way we deemed fit. Imagine there was no relevant authority to monitor/supervise our city, country, or the whole world’s e-waste management habits. Wouldn’t it be convenient if we dumped our e-waste in landfill or in a nearby river? What do you think will happen? A disaster!
E-waste is a materially significant (global) environmental and social risk, with e-waste the fastest growing waste stream in the industrialised world, with some 40 million tons of obsolete computers, monitors, and TVs disposed of annually. According to estimates, nearly 70 percent of used computers and monitors in the United States will end up in landfills, and up to 75 percent of e-waste generated in the European Union is unaccounted for.
Our e-waste is filled with a rich cocktail of toxic inputs. Unfortunately when this e-waste is not recycled and simply thrown out with our other waste, ultimately ending up in landfill, it means both human health and the environment are at risk.
National Recycling Week (November 9-15) is a timely reminder that we, as global citizens could be doing better.
There is a notion in developed countries that the electronics we throw away magically disappears into “used-technology park”. This is both false and alarming. According to a report by the BBC, e-waste pollution is causing severe health concerns for millions of people around the world, mostly in the developing nations of Africa, Europe and Asia*. Approximately 23 percent of deaths in these nations are linked to pollution and other environmental impacts. The report also concluded that more than 200 million people worldwide are at risk of exposure to toxic waste.
The issue of e-waste is complex; however we can pinpoint the issue to a few root causes:
- Increasing supply of discarded products. Our appetites for new electronic items is insatiable. The Apple iPhone is one example where the release of a new (or slightly altered version of the previous) model pushes owners to replace a fully-functioning gadget with a new, cooler version. While the benefit of the ‘design’ function is to constantly push boundaries, a downside of aggressively redesigning is a high degree of obsolete products. In a recent visit to a recycling facility, I noticed that the place was strewn with brand new printers and other IT peripherals. This is a result of manufacturers pushing out new, slightly different versions of products—maybe with new features, or more compact design. With the release of new models, many manufacturers and retailers send-off new electronic items directly to the recycling facilities. Yes, brand new products.
- Embedded with toxic waste. Electronics contain many toxic materials-lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, PVC, and toxic flame retardants. This makes recovering materials much more complicated, requiring careful measures to protect workers and the communities nearby.
- Shipping e-waste to developing nations. Many recyclers, worried about their economic bottom line, ship toxic e-waste to developing countries. The recycling operations in these countries are crude in nature causing more harm than good, not only to the environment but to the people and the communities. By outsourcing toxic impacts, developed countries are in essence outsourcing the poison rather than finding a cure or even preventing such a moral disaster.
- End-of-life considerations. Most electronic items are designed with a life span of two years. Imagine if everything in life was designed with a two-year life span factored in to the design decision. How high what the piles of waste be then.
While the situation seems dire, there are a number of pathways to higher and transparent recycling rates of e-waste.
Firstly, we need to put the onus on manufacturers to bear the responsibility to collect and recycle their obsolete products after their customers have moved on to the next model. The concept of ‘producer responsibility’ is critical here. The concept pushes producers to include the cost of recycling into the price of their product. This not only increases the sale price to consumers but also gives producers an incentive to design their products to be more recyclable. This results in greater levels of recycling and diverting e-waste from landfill.
Secondly, higher standards need to be set for recyclers with robust certification programs. In Australia, we have few laws that regulate the electronics recycling industry. So when a recycler says they comply with all laws, it may not mean very much. That makes it hard to tell the difference between truly responsible recyclers, and exporters. Another solution is to establish high-bar voluntary standards for the recyclers who want to show they are recycling responsibly, backed up by a certification program, where accredited third-party auditors certify that recyclers are meeting the standards.
As e-waste is inherently toxic, a common-sense solution would be to remove the toxicity contained in the electronic products. An ideal world would be where manufacturers design out the toxics in their products, and make them closed-loop recyclable. A more holistic solution will be improved design for the electronic items for recycling and easy strip-down with the removal of toxic materials where possible.
Perhaps one of the most important issues that faces us as a world is our future generations (our most important stakeholder). We need to instil e-waste training and awareness sessions in schools. If they understand the problems e-waste poses to their health and the environment we can foster a new e-waste recycling generation.