E-Waste in Developing Countries: Treasure to Trash?

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SEATTLE, Washington — The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries was a pivotal time in history. Innovations were quickly progressing, allowing large machines to create goods faster than people ever could. However, the government did not introduce safety precautions at the same rate. As a result, injuries, health conditions and environmental pollutants became a significant issue. After almost 300 years, despite improved technology and safety measures, these issues remain a concern when it comes to e-waste in developing countries.

While the concern has significantly decreased in developed countries within the United Kingdom, Europe and North America, developing countries are facing the effects of a new revolution—the “electronics revolution.” And it is progressing quickly. For instance, cell phones were invented in 1973. Now, less than 50 years later, more than 75% of the world owns one.

One of the biggest challenges this revolution presents is how to dispose of these electronic products properly. Cell phones are only one part of the problem. Technological solutions for the disposal of electronics must keep up with the ever-evolving technology of manufacturing. To do so, we must follow electronics from cradle to grave, from “treasure to trash.”

What is E-Waste?

The “trash” in question here is called e-waste. E-waste refers to electronics such as computers, phones, radios, refrigerators, and other devices or appliances that have been discarded. Either these products reached the end of their functional life-cycle prior to disposal or they were simply discarded for newer models. Fortunately, some programs exist for donating, refurbishing, or recycling used items to safely dispose of or reuse materials.

However, companies do not always comply with measures for proper disposal, even if the technology is available to do so. Often, the EU, U.S., or other “developed” countries will export e-waste into developing countries like China, Taiwan, Mexico, Pakistan, etc. A 2015 report by the European Union Action to Fight Environmental Crime estimated that the EU produces eight to nine million tonnes of e-waste annually. In 2006 alone, the EU exported 1.9 million tonnes to other countries, and of that, 1.1 million tonnes were exported illegally.

In the US, the Basal Access Network deployed 200 geo trackers to locate e-waste items. It found that 32% of those items were exported, most of which likely done illegally. The trackers also discovered that e-waste recyclers exported an even higher amount at 39%. It has also been revealed that Goodwill, Inc., partnered with the computer company Dell, has exported hazardous e-waste, despite their claims of recycling such items.

E-Waste in Developing Countries

Electronics imported to developing countries can litter towns and villages and introduce serious health and environmental risks. For example, Guiyu, China receives a significant amount of e-waste and also contains some of the highest amounts of cancer-causing dioxins. Certain types of e-waste are made up of hazardous materials. Toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic may leach into the land or atmosphere by way of dangerous processing techniques such as burning, crushing or acid baths.

The United States and other developed nations have made it illegal to dispose of electronics in landfills due to the risk of toxic chemicals and the disruption to human health and ecosystems. However, many developing countries do not have these laws or the ability to refuse many of these imports. To improve these conditions, the International E-Waste Management Network, run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Taiwan EPA, held a workshop for 11 countries in 2018. Their goal was to assess possible markets for e-waste material, protect people and the environment and better interact with the industry and new technology.

How Individuals Can Help

While industries must make improvements to attain a more circular economy, there are also several actions that individuals can take to avoid contributing to dangerous disposal methods. One thing that individuals can do is buy previously owned electronics or appliances. Individuals can also help by holding onto their electronics longer, rather than disposing of products that still work. To ensure proper disposal of items, it is a good idea to research disposal sites, as well as municipal centers and nonprofits that offer recycling services, ahead of time.

During this technological revolution, recycling technology must keep up with manufacturing technology to ensure that adequate standards of health, safety and environmental responsibility are being met. Company transparency and compliance with the law can help prevent the export of e-waste and lessen the effects of e-waste in developing countries. To promote a circular economy, there is still a lot of work left to be done with e-waste—it’s more than just “treasure to trash.”

– Sydney Bazilian

Photo: Wikimedia

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