A load of trash.......A brief look at e-waste

Recently I watched two non-ICT4D related, but fascinating documentaries: Cowspiracy – a film exposing the impact of humans’ consumption or animal products on the environment; and The True Cost – discusses the effects of fast fashion on the developing nations that the western world outsources production to. First of all, I would encourage anyone to watch the two films. As with all documentaries, they are not without bias, however, they present some interesting data and facts that are not often discussed or debated in mainstream media – and they should be. For example, Cowspiracy states that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions which is more than the combined exhaust from all transportation which stands at 13%. And next time you tuck into your Big Mac, know that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of beef. And The True Cost opens with the facts that 97 percent of all clothing is now outsourced compared to 3 percent in 1960s. What both films have in common is their portrayal of facts that amongst other things, highlight the impact of man’s consumption – or overconsumption – on the environment.

So now let’s bring it back to technology. It’s not that I think this issue has been completely forgotten, but do I think that conversations about the topic of eWaste have waned in recent years (although that might just be my own ignorance). Regardless, watching these two documentaries got me thinking that the conversations surrounding what to do with all the waste from unwanted electrics could always do with airtime, so I thought I would do a little digging and see what information is out there today. Let’s get this straight from the get-go, this problem is HUGE and to try and solve it completely is to try and solve the fundamental issues with consumerism itself, something I’m afraid I am not qualified to do. However, I think it’s an important topic to keep on the agenda at all times, not just when considering the after-effects of failed ICT4D project implementations (they don’t exist do they??!!), but also as in an attempt to be conscious consumers as we gobble up the latest devices and gadgets.  

So let’s look at some of the data. According to the United Nations University report, 41 million tonnes of eWaste[1] worth over £34 billion were discarded globally in 2014, with just 6 million tonnes of that being recycled effectively[2]. And what could effective recycling look like? Well, the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims that for every one million mobile phones that are recycled, the it can recover 16 tonnes of copper, almost 1 tonne of silver, 34 kgs of gold, and 15 kgs of palladium. However, of all eWaste generated, mobile phones currently have the lowest rate of recycling with just 11 percent of mobiles being recycled compared to computers which sits at 40 percent. That means that in the US alone, 16,500 tonnes of mobile devices are trashed every single year.

There are estimates around the financial benefits for companies who do recycle goods and take back the precious metals used to produce electrical goods. In the US, it has been claimed that if the recycling rates for gold (15%), silver (15%) and platinum (5%) all increased to 100%, there could be $12 billion in financial benefits. But in today’s economy, it seems that $12 billion is not incentive enough to drive the proper regulations and processes required to ensure responsible disposal. However, it does provide an incentive for less developed countries who buy the eWaste of the US. In fact, at perhaps its most grotesque, a recycling company will take your donated products and sell them onto less developed countries so they not only make a profit off you, but also relinquish the responsibility of having to dispose of the items in an environmentally friendly manner. In a fascinating two-year investigation, the Basel Action Network partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to put 200 geolocating tracking devices inside old computers, TVs and printers. They then dropped them off nationwide at donation centres, recyclers and electronic take-back programs and sat back to see where they ended up. The devices travelled an average of 2,500 miles and around a third were exported with most ending up in Hong Kong, a common hub for illegal trade. From there the eWaste is distributed to be processed (cleaned and stripped for its valuable parts) in dangerous, toxic working conditions dealing with lead, mercury and beryllium, often by illegal immigrants. Around 15 years ago, the Basel Convention was created to stop the dumping of hazardous waste on poorer countries by those in richer ones, however, the US has still not ratified this and so it continues.

Image source: http://knowcache.com/e-waste-growing-environmental-nightmare/

Image source: http://knowcache.com/e-waste-growing-environmental-nightmare/

But it’s not just the western world who is creating the problem. This week in India, the government said that around 1.7 million tonnes of e-waste was generated in the country in 2014 with just 151 registered eWaste dismantlers and recyclers in the country having combined capacity of around half a million tonne per annum. The issue is beyond big and ways to deal with effectively will depend largely on what you are disposing of and where you are located in the world. An excellent place to start is the Basel Action Network (BAN) website. It provides a huge amount of information the current challenges and its tactics for managing eWaste more effectively. Another excellent resource is the Electronics Take Back Coalition. A partner of BAN, they promote green design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry by creating and enforcing policies that ensure consumer electronics manufacturers and brand owners to take full responsibility for the life cycle of their products. I wish I could sum up with some profound words of advice here but some issues seem too big to attempt to summarise neatly. Buy less, reuse more, live consciously. There you go.


[1] Including all matters of electrical waste (fridges, freezers, TV, laptops, mobiles etc)

[2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3049457/Where-computer-goes-die-Shocking-pictures-toxic-electronic-graveyards-Africa-West-dumps-old-PCs-laptops-microwaves-fridges-phones.html#ixzz4Gm7IeoXC