Case Study: The Growing E-Waste Problem

COVID-19 speed-up the e-commerce industry, online learning, streaming, gaming, and social media apps usage. Everything is online now. The pandemic increases consumer electronics and household appliances spending. And is expected to increase up to 14% by 2023. We are now in the era of technological advancement. And we are a generation obsessed with technology. The rapid growth of technology, and consumer demand has led to an increase in electronic waste or e-waste.

Similarly, we have gadgets of all kinds. From our appliances to our computers and laptops, and cell phones. We change our gadgets as often as we buy new clothes. Indeed, every time a new upgrade comes out, we throw our old gadgets away to buy a new one.
Now the million-dollar question, how much electronic waste do we generate? Where does it all go?

Impact of e-waste on the environment and health?

E-waste are threat to our environment and health. This is because electronic and electronic goods contain a whole range of precious materials such as gold, copper, silver, tin, nickel, zinc, and aluminum. But at the same time, they contain toxic and hazardous chemicals. A lot of precious resources are being thrown away once the e-waste is sent to the landfill.

There are safety concerns when old gadgets are being thrown away in landfills. For instance, the hazardous constituents it contains are lead, mercury, and chromium. Certain chemicals in plastics and flame retardants cause environmental problems and health hazards as well.

The health implications of improper e-waste disposal are the following:

  • Electronics containing lead can damage our central nervous system and kidneys.
  • Low-level exposure to lead is detrimental to a child’s health.
  • Common electronic items (like LCD desktop monitors, LCD & Plasma TV, TVs, and computers with Cathode Ray Tubes) contain hazardous substances.
  • E-waste contains hundreds of substances, of which many are toxic. This includes mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, chromium, and flame retardants.
  • 85% of our E-Waste that is sent to landfills are burned releasing dangerous toxins in the air.

Issues in E-Waste

When e-waste is recycled, the process to retrieved usable metals and materials is extremely toxic. The majority of e-waste is dump in countries like China, India, Ghana, Pakistan where the industry is unregulated. These workers are exploited and are working in unsafe conditions. Similarly, it is reported 20 percent of the world’s e-waste is collected and delivered to formal recyclers and the rest is unknown. Thus, precious metals found in circuit boards and backyard recyclers in places like India and Indonesia recover gold by bathing circuit boards in nitric and hydrochloric acid. Hence, poisoning the waterways and communities.

Same story for migrant workers in Thailand. It is reported they break down used electronics in their homes. They’re using cooking stoves and shredders wearing no protection against the emissions. Children are inhaling toxic fumes.

In order to address this global issue, innovators have introduced safer techniques for recovering precious metals. Likewise, Tech manufacturers are starting to look at recycling the precious metals from old tech gadgets rather than from the earth. Apple, for instance, has created Material Recovery Lab ‘Daisy and Dave’. The technology extracts rare earth elements, steel, and tungsten from old iPhones. And thus, recycling them as new component parts. For example, The Tokyo 2020 Medal Project. The medals are made from recycled precious metals extracted from old mobile phones and other small electronic devices donated by the public.

Awareness by Consumers

First and foremost, we need to embrace Circular Economy. The disposal of e-waste is not sustainable. The problem is there’s always demand. In fact, the main driver for the increase in electronic goods consumption is us, consumers. This needs to stop. Or at least, be conscious of what we buy and dispose of. We need to think circularly. To illustrate, here are the ways you can do as consumers to reduce e-waste and promote green disposal properly.

1. Reduce

Indeed, to reduce e-waste is to lower down the demand. And to lower demand, we need to reduce our purchases. Consider buying a refurbished model with higher specs instead. When buying electronics, factor in the specs for the future. Not just for now, but think of upgrades, software updates, and repairs in the future.

Practical tips to reduce e-waste

  • Check whether you really need a new electronic item or device
  • Next, consider second-hand market
  • On the other hand, extend the life of your electronics
  • Sell your working electronics or donate
  • Also, consider repairing the item (if it is broken)

2. Recycle

Of course, you need to be a responsible consumer. Bring your old tech to a reputable recycling company. However, you should be aware of dubious recycling companies. There are some recyclers where e-waste is being dumped in Asia. And worst, the industry is unregulated resulting in worker exploitation and the environment.

On the other hand, The Australian Government introduced an industry-funded recycling scheme for televisions and computers. The aim is to recycle and prevent dumping e-waste into landfills. Organisations approved to deliver recycling services under the scheme are:

  • Planet Ark
  • TechCollect
  • Drop Zone
  • eCycle Solutions
  • Electronic Product Stewardship Australasia (EPSA)

Officeworks is another example. In fact, they partner with Planet Ark and TechCollect, aiming to upgrade the recycling stations across all its stores. It started with the disposal drop-off of printer cartridges and old mobile phones. Soon, it will include the disposal of all electronic gadgets.

Final Thoughts..

Overall, the rapid increase of electronic gadgets and disposal of e-waste is a global crisis. In fact, our obsession with technology is not sustainable. Our consumer-driven society pushes further depletion of natural resources. In fact, Tech companies and electronic manufacturer needs to be accountable with the disposal of e-waste.
In addition, the Government needs to intervene and ensure companies closes the loop from design to disposal. Moreover, developed countries have the capability to process green disposal. In addition, government agencies need to policed recycling companies that take advantage of the vulnerable group to do the dirty work. The consumer too also plays an important part to close the loop in digital products.
Finally, we have the buying power to dictate to the companies and pressure them to start making electronic goods in a sustainable manner.

Reference:

Apple. (2020). Inside an iPhone lives a new iPhone. Retrieved from https://www.apple.com/au/environment/

Buchholz, K. (2020). These products are driving the online sales boom during COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/09/covid19-coronavirus-consumer-electronics-digital-commerce/

Gordon, W. (2020 May 28). The principles of buying tech that lasts according to experts. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/shopping/tech-gadgets/how-buy-tech-gadgets-last-longer-n1215581

Heacock, M., Carol, B. K., Kwadwo, A. A., Birnbaum, L. S., Bergman, Å. L., Marie-Noel Bruné, . . . Suk, W. A. (2016). E-waste and harm to vulnerable populations: A growing global problem. Environmental Health Perspectives (Online), 124(5), 550. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.excelsia.idm.oclc.org/docview/1785751417?accountid=32565

Larmer, B. (2018 July 5). E-Waste Offers an Economic Opportunity as Well as Toxicity. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/magazine/e-waste-offers-an-economic-opportunity-as-well-as-toxicity.html

Perez, S. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic accelerated shift to e-commerce by 5 years, new report says. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/08/covid19-pandemic-social-shift-ecommerce-report

Planet Ark. (2020). TV & Computer recycling scheme. Retrieved from https://www.recyclingnearyou.com.au/ewastescheme/

The World Counts. (2020). Electronic Revolution = E-Waste. Retrieved from https://www.theworldcounts.com/stories/electronic-waste-facts

Tokyo Paralympic. (2019). Tokyo 2020: Medals revealed as hosts celebrate one year to go. Retrieved from https://www.paralympic.org/news/tokyo-2020-medals-revealed-hosts-celebrate-one-year-go?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIusODkNTo7AIVN8EWBR1uNgQdEAAYASAAEgKvvvD_BwE

Victoria State Government. (2020). Why recycle e-waste? Retrieved from https://www.sustainability.vic.gov.au/Campaigns/eWaste/Why-recycle-ewaste

Zeng, X. (2017). E-waste : Regulations, Management Strategies, and Current Issues. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Len Peralta

About the Author

Len Peralta is the creator of LCM Digital Training. Her goal is for digital learning to be engaging, interactive, and cost-effective. . Follow her on Twitter @AskLenPeralta

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