EnvironmentSocial issues

Feature: The Time Bomb Called “E-Waste”

– by Isla Mackinnon

As technology continually advances with its decreasing production costs and planned extinction of old models, e-waste is becoming an overwhelming global problem.

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), or e-waste for short, is the term to describe old, end-of-life or discarded appliances that use electricity, including common computers, televisions and phones. Discarded electronics contain a range of toxic materials that require particular handling in order to be safely disposed and recycled.

Unfortunately, this is not what most of the cases look like – and the consequences are not pretty.

The run down

The sense of crisis around e-waste stems from three concerns, the first being the sheer amount of e-waste created annually. Worldwide, it is estimated that 20-50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated annually. For example, in 2007-2008, Australians disposed of 12.7 million computers that were deemed unusable, with less than 10% of that being recycled.

The second cause of concern is the fact that e-waste is a global phenomenon; it is present almost everywhere there are people. A significant percentage of the population relies on technology today.

The final concern is the rapid rate that e-waste is being produced. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has stated that e-waste is increasing by 40% per year worldwide. However, in some developing countries, the volume of e-waste is expected to grow by up to 500% over the next decade.

The Basel Convention is an international treaty, effective since 1992, intended to keep e-waste within countries capable of handling it. It bans hazardous material exports to developing countries without “prior informed consent” from the accepting nation.

With 178 nations signing, The Basel Convention is the most comprehensive agreement to prevent the dumping of e-waste in developing nations. However, despite providing rules for determining liable parties in cases of infringements, the convention does not outline penalties, leaving individual states to determine punishment.

This coupled with the exponential increase of e-waste generated in the developing, rather than the developed, world means an expanding sector in the market that specialises in ‘cheap’ and efficient processing sector – and it does not come without its ramifications.

Laws lack effectiveness

2995086634_d7420169dd_zE-waste has become an illegal global market where waste is transported and dumped around the world, with several contributing factors.

For one, while developed countries have numerous regulations to ensure proper disposal, many of them – including Australia and the US – lack a coherent national collection infrastructure, most of which are based on extended producer responsibility (EPR).

EPR puts the responsibility on manufacturers to take back items for safe recovery or disposal after they are collected by retailers and local governments. Economic incentives, however, make it difficult to ensure compliance. This results in improper disposal and the majority of e-waste going unrecycled.

Secondly, e-waste is expensive to process safely, so it is more cost-effective to ship it to developing countries, such as China and Nigeria. Most e-waste ends up being treated as general refuse or only crudely processed, despite regulations and laws.

To avoid breaking the Basel Convention and other such initiatives, a large amount of waste is being diverted to the developing world under the pretence of ‘second-hand goods’. Shipment is often through middlemen, and under tariff classifications that make quantities difficult to assess.

In 2011, SBS’ Dateline revealed that Australian e-waste was being illegally shipped to Ghana, one of the many developing nations paying the price of Western consumerism. However, the issue of e-waste in Ghana is of small scale compared to countries like Nigeria and China.

The release of numerous pollutants into the environment is a high price to pay for the recovery of only a few materials of value. E-waste contains both valuable and hazardous materials that need particular handling and recycling procedures. Improper handling of e-waste can lead to the polluting of soil and water as the toxic components of e-waste break down.

In Australia, the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) has found 14 types of heavy metals and toxic flame-retardants in contaminated water drained from landfills. These include arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, chromium and zinc, as well as persistent organic pollutants. These are all highly toxic to both humans and the environment.

Guiyu, toxic desolation

In Guiyu, a set of towns in southeast China, the situation is even more critical.

2995063344_f23c23af96_zBy 1995, Guiyu had become a major ‘backyard’ processing site which handled mostly imported e-waste. In 2010, it was estimated that it had approximately 5500 shops employing some 150,000 people, and the numbers have only grown since.
Labourers – a large number of whom are minors­ – typically work without goggles, gloves or proper ventilation. Tasks, such as grilling circuit boards to melt lead and plastic to extract embedded IC chips, expose workers to numerous toxic fumes daily.

The vast amount of e-waste processing over a long period has made the area an environmental wasteland. In 2007, scientists took soil samples where workers had been melting circuit boards and cable sheathing along with using open pits of acid. Their results found that the amount of carcinogens that were present in nearby duck ponds drastically exceeded international guidelines.

Furthermore, scientists found heavy metals in high concentrations in Guiyu road dust. Levels of lead were over 300 times more than that of a controlled village’s where no e-waste processing had occurred.

While several studies have detected elevated levels of toxins in the air, soil, water, and human tissue, less evidence has been collected on the harm this exposure has on individuals. The immediate effects have not been proven, but those living in high-toxicity areas report severe headaches, skin damage and nausea.

The long-term impact of exposure is still unclear. This is due to the neurological nature of many of the effects, the unstable condition of the subject population, and the background noise of other unhealthy conditions making it difficult to assess.

However, scientists found that cadmium levels in umbilical cord blood were above the World Health Organisation’s standards in over 25% of new-borns in the Guiyu area. They reported significantly lower birth weights and the rate of stillbirths were four times that of a controlled area. They also found that children aged 1-8 years old were a significantly lower height than children of a controlled area; this is due to areas with high exposure, leading to a blockage of absorption of calcium and iron.

Despite national regulations in developed nations, only a minimal percentage is being properly recycled or disposed of. Manufacturers and the government must take a greater responsibility to effectively recycle pre-loved technology. By doing so, less e-waste will be diverted to the developing world and be poorly processed.

Currently, developing countries and the environment are already paying the price for Western consumerism culture. And if no action is taken in the near future, everyone will.

Featured image: Mightyroy/Wikimedia Commons

Other images: Bert van Dijk

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