What is e-waste?
The term e-waste is just a shortening of electronic waste. As our consumer society continues to churn out endless upgrades and improvements of electronic equipment we are constantly told that we need to upgrade. We need more features in our mobile phones, more power in our computers and better picture quality on our TVs. The result of this constant drive to upgrade and improve is that we discard an ever increasing mountain of electronic waste. Our old phones and TVs are thrown out to make way for the new.
Where does it go?
Sadly e-waste often used to end up in landfills. Because the amount of e-waste is growing every year, the E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Agency) estimates millions of tons are thrown out in the US alone each year. The problem has become big enough that it can no longer be ignored. The introduction of regulation and guidelines about the disposal of electronic products has led to many countries simply exporting their e-waste to developing countries. Very few of the electronics we throw away are recycled or refurbished and this is partly down to resistance from manufacturers who want to ply their new wares, not reuse older products. Nowadays a lot of e-waste ends up in China, India and a variety of African countries.
Electronic Waste Disposal
Since all the e-waste on the planet contains potentially useful materials there is a bustling trade in refurbishment and extraction. Depending on the state of the waste it can be repaired and sold on in the market or it can be torn apart for the valuable metals and resources contained within. The process of extracting the useful resources from the e-waste is hugely environmentally damaging and it has been shifted quite successfully to developing nations. The practice of dumping e-waste in foreign countries is legally questionable and morally bankrupt at best, at worst it is downright illegal.
Pros and Cons of e-waste for Developing Countries
Supporters of the practice of shifting e-waste to developing countries point out that flourishing industry has developed based on re-using these waste products. They claim that harvesting these materials from e-waste is less environmentally damaging than mining them. Finally they state that the abundance of cheap labour combined with lower environmental standards and less protection for workers makes it possible to process e-waste in the developing world in a way which would be impossible and even illegal in the west.
The effect of this growing tide of e-waste washing up on foreign shores is horrendous and it leads to appalling working conditions, widespread pollution and inefficient techniques. There are various towns which have become centres for the harvesting of e-waste and they are now home to huge piles of electronic products. The water supply is often polluted because many of the inefficient techniques they use to get the valuable resources out of the e-waste involve burning plastics to get at the metal. This practice releases toxins into the air and there have been some terrible health problems as a consequence.
How do we Deal with e-waste?
The amount of e-waste on the planet continues to grow and that process is likely to accelerate. There are various ways to deal with this growing problem and the most obvious is proper government legislation to prevent people from dumping their e-waste in developing countries in order to avoid the cost of disposing of it properly. A number of countries have already signed various agreements such as the Basel Convention to try and curb the practice of shifting e-waste overseas, but the main producers of e-waste need to get with the program (the US has still not ratified it).
We need the development of industries to recycle and refurbish e-waste in the countries that actually produce it. Since legislation was introduced to ban e-waste dumping in landfills several years ago, in many European countries there is already an e-waste processing industry. There has also been legislation which attempts to make the manufacturers responsible for processing the e-waste they create and this in turn helps to encourage the development of green products. Unfortunately it still has a way to go and in 2005, an inspection of 18 European seaports found that as much as 47% of the waste due to be exported was illegal, and much of it was e-waste.
What Can You Do?
As individual consumers and the people who ultimately throw away all that e-waste we need to stop and think about where it is going. There are often programs in place which allow you to dispose of electronic waste for free to sources where it will be either refurbished, recycled or disposed of safely. Instead of throwing that old mobile phone in the bin have a quick search on the web for a recycling service. You can sometimes even sell your old products and make a bit of money while helping to prevent further pollution. Check out How to Recycle Electronics for more information on that.
You should also consider whether you need a new product before you buy one. You should search for green electronics companies (there are several out there). You can also potentially return the product to the manufacturer when you are finished with it; depending on the legislation in your country they may have to deal with it themselves.
The images in this article are from Greenpeace and you should check out their website for more information on tackling the e-waste on the planet.