Solving the E-Waste Problem

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SEATTLE, Washington — When was the last time you upgraded your mobile device, computer or television? If you have recently, was your old electronic equipment disposed of properly? Participating in Electronic Waste Recycling is a step in the right direction. However, the solution to our excess may have created problems of its own.

If you’ve ever participated in an Electronic Waste disposal drive, you are most likely making an impact on the lives of people in developing nations such as Uganda, Pakistan and China. Electronic Waste, or E-Waste, constitutes the leftover phones, computers, appliances and other electrical components thrown out every time we upgrade to newer technology.

Ideally, most E-Waste should be either reused or recycled. However, this is often not the case because only 11 to 14% of E-Waste from the United States is actually recycled. Of the waste given to electronic recyclers, 70 to 80% is exported overseas to developing nations for processing. This creates an overwhelming flow of mostly non-functioning electronics containing hazardous elements and gases such as Mercury, Lead and Arsenic.

Estimates of waste leaving the United States vary, and there is no single entity accounting for the exportation of electronic waste to the developing world. However, one estimate states that 10 million tonnes of E-Waste left the United States in 2012.

So what happens to the loads of electronic waste that are exported to developing nations? Initially, devices are sorted by hand, dissembled into components. Some metals and plastics are melted down. What materials cannot be feasibly processed accumulate in massive dumps near inhabited places and waterways.

The current recycling chain is detrimental to the health of workers who handle these wastes improperly and without protection from toxic materials. Toxic fumes are often inhaled as metals are burned openly. This process is also a direct cause to the pollution of the environment. So-called “Recycling Plants” are typically back-yard operations that process waste to extract precious metals such as gold before disposing the rest in landfills.

What are the solutions to E-Waste?

Each step of the recycling chain must work well on its own in order to collectively meet the goal of recycling E-Waste efficiently. From sorting to refining, there has been action to provide practical solutions to the problems caused by E-Waste.

These solutions not only address environmental and health concerns but emphasize practices that are economically sustainable. Questions such as “Is there a need for a facility?” or “Can the start-up costs be replenished?” are two of many that must be asked when implementing higher technology E-Waste facilities in certain locations.

The Basel Convention is an example of international law that was created in support of sustainable E-Waste recycling. In summary, its principles state that the movement of hazardous wastes must be restricted to places where the materials can be handled in an environmentally sound manner. A Basel Action Network has been formed to create international awareness of the dangers of improper processing of Electronic Waste.

Moreover, the United Nations Step-Initiative was created based on a comprehensive approach to handling E-Waste. It begins with analyzing policy, followed by tasks to redesign, reuse and recycle Electronic Waste. The UN Step Initiative also prepares professionals for the field of E-Waste management.

As stated before, each stage of the recycling process must be in line with the other stages in order to be successful. Many are willing to dispose of electronic devices readily, but what impact will it have on the developing world?

Aysha Rasool

Sources: The Guardian, Step Initiative, Electronics Take Back Coalition, E-Stewards, E-Stewards, UNEP
Photo: EIA Investagor

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