A closer look at the damage e-waste causes to the environment

A closer look at the damage e-waste causes to the environment

By Eurico Borges

E-Waste is equipment that has either been discarded because it’s broken or has become obsolete. Most people who use technology produce e-waste, even if they’re unaware of the word, its dimensions, and its consequences.

According to the international report Global E-waste Monitor 2020, a partnership between the United Nations University (UNU), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), the whole weight of worldwide Electrical and equipment consumption increases annually by 2.5 million metric tonnes.

 

 

 

In 2019, the planet produced 53.6 Mt of e-waste, about 7.3 kg per person. The officially recorded recycling amount was 9.3 Mt, only 17.4% of the total. It increased 1.8 Mt since 2014, yearly growth of almost 0.4 Mt.

The destiny of the remaining 44.3 Mt of e-waste generated in 2019 is unknown, and its location and environmental influence vary across the regions. It has numerous hazardous substances, such as chlorofluorocarbons, mercury, and brominated flame retardants.

Every year 50 t of mercury and 71 kt of BFR plastics are released into the environment and impact workers’ health. 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents from discarded fridges and air-conditioners, about 0.3% of worldwide energy-related emissions, were released in 2019.

The value of raw materials within the worldwide e-waste generated in 2019 is approximately $57 billion. This happens mainly due to two factors: exponentiality and programmed obsolescence. However, it can be recycled, and, among other valuable materials, there may be gold, silver, copper, and platinum in this disposal. 

An estimated $55 billion was lost in the year of the study through the non-use of this waste. Although this is a complex task and requires a high level of training, there are simpler processes for reusing some scrap parts that can give new life to broken appliances and even be used to construct new products.

Electronic waste is a consequence of the advent of electronic and technological products. The latter, being increasingly disposable, makes e-waste an expanding problem. The issue of e-waste has become more debated in recent times because of the exponential growth of this type of waste and nature protection organisations. They have started to pressure manufacturers, and the government to create regulations for this type of waste disposal and reuse.

The reuse, which involves the complete disassembly of the equipment to remove parts such as the metals mentioned above, can only be done by professionals. Usually, many components are harmful to humans inside the equipment, such as arsenic, beryllium, barium, etc. Whole parts removed from obsolete equipment can be reused to repair or even assemble new ones.

Electronic waste is multi-purpose and can even be the core of a business. There are also projects and NGOs with a social focus that use it. As for international examples, the American Eric Lundgren, former CEO of an electronics recycling and reuse company, has two achievements. 

The first, the creation, with 88% reuse parts, of an electronic car that beat Tesla in speed. Lundgren’s idea was to draw the attention of the electronics industry to the issue of recycling. His second achievement was the restoration of disks to make computers last longer. Microsoft sued him, lost in the first instance, and although the case is on appeal, he has stepped down as CEO of his company.

But several health risks exist for the employees who disassemble, without special care, devices for recycling.  There are harmful components and risks for the environment and the population that lives near dumpsites where e-waste, mixed with the regular garbage, is disposed of. The equipment contains numerous pollutant elements responsible for soil contamination. They can cause damage to health, agriculture, and water tables. 

The technologies of the modern world enable new devices to be constantly launched with new trends quickly emerging, which leads the consumer to replace their electronic equipment unnecessarily, generating an increasing volume of electronic waste.

This phenomenon, called programmed obsolescence, contributes significantly to the increase of electronic waste, which can cause several environmental and human health impacts if disposed of incorrectly.

According to the Centre for Mineral Technology (CETEM), about 70% of the heavy metals found in dumps and controlled landfills come from improperly discarded electronic equipment. The Ann Arbor Ecology Centre researched 36 cell phones of different brands and models, analysing the number of toxic components present in the devices, such as lead, bromine, and cadmium. 

There is concern about specific irregularly discarded devices because these contain elements that are highly damaging to the environment, which cannot be thrown away just anywhere. In addition, these devices have valuable materials and rare metals, helpful in making other electronics from recycled material.

With the popularisation of mobile telephony and personal computing, the generation of electronic waste has significantly increased, both because often buying a new device is simpler than repairing it, and because of the stimulus of programmed obsolescence, practised by manufacturers to encourage consumers always to exchange their devices for new ones, usually once a year or at even shorter intervals.

Even though they are biodegradable, some elements contained in the electronic waste can remain in the soil for centuries, contaminating everything in between. Materials such as gold, silver, copper, platinum, and rare metals, are difficult to obtain in nature. It is always preferable for the user to dispose of the devices correctly.

To dispose of electronic waste correctly, people can donate the device to another person, a company, or an institution, sell it or trade it for another consumer good, or contact the manufacturer to arrange reverse logistics.

Suppose the device is defective and cannot be repaired. In that case, the user can opt for reverse logistics or, in extreme cases (when the device is old and there is no company to contact or if the manufacturer is not in compliance with the Law), one can turn to cooperatives to dispose of the product correctly.

Throwing something away may not always be the best way to dispose of a product. Specialised NGOs can revitalise devices and lend them to needy communities, schools, various types of institutions, and even micro-enterprises. 

Besides NGOs, the correct destinations can also be found in local communities for something that is no longer being used but still works and can meet someone’s needs. Another possibility is to sell the product, as maybe someone needs a part or can reuse what you see as disposable.

There are also sites, such as eCycle, that function as specialised search engines; through the site it is possible to specify the type of product to be disposed of and place of residence for the platform to return results of cooperatives near the user.

So next time you’re about to discard an electronic device, give thought to the negative impact it will have on the environment and choose to dispose of your electronics responsibly.

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