There is 100 times more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than a tonne of gold ore.
In Australia e-waste is the fastest-growing part of the municipal solid waste stream. The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines e-waste as “waste electrical and electronic equipment that is dependent on electric currents or electromagnetic fields in order to function (including all components, subassemblies and consumables which are part of the original equipment at the time of discarding).”
Electronics and electronic products that are deemed “useless” or at the end of their “useful life” (even if they still work) that are improperly disposed of are termed “e-waste”. These can be reused, refurbished, and recycled.
Sometimes they are donated to charity and proper recycling centers but the vast majority end up at landfills and illegal dumps. The struggle of recycling e-waste is not new and has been around since the 1970s. Many things have changed since then, and one of them is the rate of e-waste accumulation.
One way manufacturers get consumers to buy their latest and greatest is using “planned obsolescence”. This is when a product is designed to last a specific amount of time before breaking down. This contributes to e-waste as many feel as though their current device can no longer serve its purpose better than the newer iteration.
Computers, laptops, and smartphones are a good example; technological developments have seen the latest iteration to be seen as essential over previous versions. While Apple releases their products in increasingly shorter intervals many of its users throw away their old one into the trash without much thought – they much prefer another one rather than a fix and be done with it.
Manufacturers in China, India, and Brazil produce electronic devices at low costs while the difficulty and cost of repairs rise – it is easy to see why many just buy another one.
Before when products were built to last there wasn’t much concern as to its disposing-of. Recent times have seen advances in technology, innovation and production, and release dates that are closer together than ever before resulting in shorter life cycles of the latest and greatest.
E-waste is broken down into 10 categories:
- Large household appliances
- Small Household appliances
- IT equipment
- Consumer electronics
- Lamps and luminaries
- Medical Devices
- Monitoring and control instruments
- Automatic dispensers
List of Common E-waste Items:
- Home Entertainment Devices
- Electric cookers
Communications and Information Technology Devices
- Cell phones
- Desktop Computers
- Computer Monitors
- Circuit boards
- Hard Drives
Home Entertainment Devices
- Blu Ray Players
- Video Game Systems
- Fax machines
Uninterrupted Power Supplies (UPS Systems)
- Power Distribution Systems (PDU’s)
- Massage Chairs
- Heating Pads
- Remote Controls
- Television Remotes
- Electrical Cords
- Smart Lights
- Night Lights
- Smart Watches
- Heart Monitors
- Diabetic Testing
Office and Medical Equipment
- IT Server Racks
- IT Servers
- Cords and Cables
- WiFi Dongles
- Dialysis Machines
- Imaging Equipment
- Phone & PBX systems
- Audio & Video Equipment
- Network Hardware (i.e. servers, switches, hubs, etc.)
- Power Strips & Power Supplies
The Bad of E-Waste
As seen with the Minamata disaster improperly disposed-of chemicals has the potential to ruin environments and communities near and far from it. E-waste that has been processed properly is able to benefit and protect the environment and communities.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), toxic materials may affect your health negatively either through direct and indirect contact and inhalation. These include lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Over time the build-up of chemicals in the soil, air, and water puts local wildlife at risk as well as people that live in the area and distant communities.
There are some recycling centers that send their e-waste to developing countries to lower operating costs. While countries such as China, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Ghana receive tons of e-waste annually and process it they do so without safety regulations with the world’s poorest workers. As profit is the aim there is no protection given to the workers as they work with e-waste regularly.
The condition of the air deteriorates as e-waste is broken down, ripped apart, and melted. These processes release dust particles and toxins causing air pollution and respiratory damage. Burning e-waste produces fine particles that can travel much farther than you’d think contributing to a higher risk of chronic diseases, cancers, and creating negative health risks to humans, animals, and the environment.
Being not biodegradable the heavy metals can stay within the environment far longer than any natural substance. This factor is how e-waste can lead to indirect and direct causes of serious damage to humans through the “soil-crop-food pathway”. Irreversible birth defects, brain, heart, liver, kidney, nervous and reproductive systems, and skeletal damage can be caused by the toxins that comes from e-waste.
The toxins eventually pool and leech into groundwater channels from landfills which negatively impact on any surrounding bodies of water and local resources from toxification and acidification. Marine and freshwater organisms die which affect the biodiversity and ecosystem, even if they are far from the original source.
Clearing large swaths of forest and explosives to blast the ground is how new materials are usually sourced. This destruction of habitat severely disrupts the local ecosystem and can often result in poisonous by-products leeching into the soil and water. This is also one of the main reasons for mass migrations, starvations, and extinctions of animal species worldwide.
In recent times the ethical issues that surround acquiring, recycling, and reuse of e-waste and its hazardous components have been brought before manufacturers – mainly that child labor is involved in all instances.
While important documents and serial numbers are shredded a hidden danger are the hard drives and memory sticks that a business may carelessly throw out. These could put them in a tough spot as they are liable if security of their clients and employee’s data is compromised and being misused or stolen.
The Good of E-Waste
There is 100 times more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than a tonne of gold ore.
E-waste is a haven for precious metals and materials that can be recovered and used for other purposes. As it is the fastest growing waste stream in the world it can also be part of the solution that offers unimaginable benefits and opportunities for economies worlwide.
The action to recycle must be reinforced regularly and as strongly as the call and allure of purchasing a brand new product.
Ask yourself these questions before purchasing an electronic product:
– Do you really need it?
– Is it a need or a want?
– Will it be valuable to your personal or professional life?
Answering no to any of these questions means re-evaluating the potential purchase and avoiding it for the meantime.
Playing your part is not just avoiding unnecessary purchases – it could be to donate your old electronics. Giving them away to a charity benefits in the community as those that have less buying power a chance they would never have gotten. There are also online marketplaces that allow you to sell them. Both these ways stops more e-waste from being dumped into landfill.
There are recycling centers in processing e-waste properly and ethically. They are able to remove the toxic parts and process the rest with a electronic shredder; the resulting dust is captured preventing air pollution. Different piles are created from the waste based on the material.
While consumers have a part to play so do manufacturers, producers, and the government.
The e-waste recycling industry is playing catch-up with e-waste.
Combining efforts from global players will create an industry that is sustainable, generates less waste, and reuses devices and their components in novel ways. Many major brands have set high targets for recycling and reusing e-waste. The device-as-a-service business model is one way to have manufacturers utilize the materials they have to its maximum longevity with low upfront costs to consumers combined with better product tracking and take-back schemes.
A circular system in which the resources used to produce products are endlessly reused in many ways can create decent, sustainable jobs, and keeps more value in the industry.
While customers have a part to play so do manufacturers, producers, and the government.
Producers may be required to offer buy-back or return schemes for old equipment.
Manufacturers could be made to abide to an export limit determined by the amount the company has reused recycled.
Governments could give companies that recycle and reuse their potential e-waste some form of tax break or rebate.
Companies could reuse parts from older systems into newer ones and sell them in markets that have limited buying capacity.
Companies and NGOs could setting up simple training centers with the purpose of repairing smartphones and computers. This could lead to employment for many and other socio-economic benefits.
It is the philosophy of reusing, repairing, and refurbishing electronics that allows any and all parts and materials to not end up being improperly disposed of. Letting others know what the implications are and taking action will minimize our e-waste.
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