E-waste is short for electronic waste - the stream of discarded consumer electronics and electronic equipment that have outlived their usefulness. Common products include computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, toys, copiers, fax machines, laptops, and phones. The vast majority of e-waste can be reused, refurbished, scrapped for parts, or recycled. However, in the US, only 20% of Americans properly dispose of their e-waste, and only a fraction of that 20% that is properly disposed of is recycled or reused within the US.5 Ideally, proper disposal of e-waste would take place in factories where recycling is undertaken by machines with proper environmental regulations and procedures to protect workers and the local environment from exposure to harmful materials and pollutants. Often, however, that isn't the case.
The tech boom that began in the 1980s has accelerated since 2000, fueled by the constant development of new gadgets and electronics. Short life spans and rapid product turnover has contributed to massive amounts of e-waste. For many companies, waste handlers, and municipalities in industrialized countries, the easiest solution to e-waste has been to export it to developing countries.
Discarded computers piled atop one another.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
That meant that old computers thrown away in California or cell phones discarded in Massachusetts have often been sent to places like Africa, Eastern Europe, South America, Southern and Southeast Asia, and, most commonly, China. Today, this continues to be an issue.6 Although much attention has been focused on e-waste and trade of hazardous waste in the past decade, the expense of processing e-waste in developed countries, the ease of shipping waste overseas, and the lack of regulations has made it difficult to curb the flow of e-waste overseas. As a result workers and children remain at risk as e-waste is dismantled, burned, and processed crudely to recover metals for resale on the market.
A map showing major ports where e-waste is received and dispatched as well as known and suspected e-waste recycling sites. Source: Grid Arendal: A Centre Collaborating with UNEP 7
Guiyu, China is nicknamed the "electronic graveyard of the world." Since it was featured in a Basel Action Network documentary titled, "Exporting Harm," Guiyu has become a symbol of the ill-consequences of little regulated e-waste processing. Piles of discarded circuit boards, televisions, and cell phones can be found throughout the city. In small-scale, informal workshops local residents dismantle everything from laptops to remote controls. Some workshops are located in people's homes. In some parts of town, the acrid stench of burning plastics permeates the air.
A man stands next to a building in Guiyu, China with piles of e-waste surrounding it. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Much of Guiyu's population of more than 132,000 work in scrapping and recycling e-waste. Different villages specialize in different types of work: Beilin dismantles equipment and bakes circuit boards; Dutou sorts plastics; Leonggang reprocesses plastics.
Image Source: Mail in Mobile.
The environmental damage in Guiyu is grave. Residents exhibit digestive, neurological, respiratory, and bone issues and diseases. Children in Guiyu are at a higher risk of lead poisoning and 80% of children experience respiratory ailments. In a 2007 study, 82% of the children in Guiyu had blood lead levels exceeding 10 µg/dL. In the village of Dutou, every child tested was lead poisoned.8
However, the danger extends beyond Guiyu to the Pearl River Delta Region in southeast China and its 45 million inhabitants.9 The e-waste processing leaches toxic chemicals into the soil and water, potentially contaminating local waterways and agricultural lands. Once the toxic chemicals enter this pathway they increase resident's exposure to heavy metals. Since many of these chemicals are persistent in the soil and water, this raises the exposure risk for future generations too.10
What is happening in Guiyu is not unique. In many cities in developing countries, there are sites of small-scale and, in some cases, large-scale processing of e-waste with little regard for human or environmental health. A 2014 study from the United Nations University documented the extent of the problem.11
Batteries are an important component of the e-waste stream. For every television, key fob, computer, or tablet that goes into the stream of e-waste, so too do alkaline, lithium, nickel-cadmium, and lead-acid batteries. In some cases batteries are difficult or impossible to remove from products. Often times, however, old electronics are discarded with the batteries simply as a matter of convenience.
E-Waste products such as televisions, cellphones, and computer products have consistently low recycling rates in the US. Adapted from GOOD.12
When batteries are separated from the waste stream, e-waste companies often send batteries to recyclers specializing in processing batteries. Batteries that aren't separated out are often shipped in shipping containers to developing countries in bulk with other e-waste, where they are scrapped to recover trace amounts of valuable metal with few if any human health or environmental precautions.
Over the past three decades, numerous policies have been developed to stem the flow of e-waste to developing countries and to ensure proper processing. The Basel Convention on the Control of the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, adopted in 1989, was developed in response to numerous scandals surrounding the international trafficking of hazardous waste in the 1980s.13 The convention has been signed by 182 nations and the European Union (EU).14 The Basel Convention applies to hazardous wastes, requiring exporters to notify and secure permission to ship waste to another country, and encourages overall reductions in waste generation. The US, despite being the world's largest source of e-waste, is one of the only countries that has refused to ratify the Basel Convention. Despite provisions aimed specifically at addressing the trade in hazardous waste, the Basel Convention has often been criticized as ineffective because it does not ban all exports of hazardous waste, its system of notification is weakly enforced, and there are no penalties for non-compliance.15 A proposed amendment would strengthen the convention by banning all exports of hazardous waste.
Many pieces of federal legislation have been proposed in recent years, but none have become law. A diverse array of state-level policies and regulations exist. Twenty-five states have passed legislation requiring e-waste recycling. Most states have adopted a Product Stewardship approach, which places the burden on the manufacture to pay for recycling. Fewer than 20 states, however, have adopted bans that prohibit the disposal of e-waste in household trash. For more information, see the Electronics TakeBack Coalition's survey of state-level policies.
The European Union (EU) has adopted two major policies to address e-waste: the 2002 Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE Directive) and the Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS Directive).16 The RoHS Directive was created to solve the issue of e-waste in the EU by setting collection, recycling, and recovery targets for e-waste. The 2003 WEEE Directive ( Directive 2002/96/EC) created a collection system where consumers could return WEEE. Its aim was to increase recycling rates and reuse. The European Commission proposed a change (Directive 2012/19/EU) in 2008 which went into effect in 2014 to tackle the growing proportion of WEEE in the waste stream.16 The current policies have proven ineffective at slowing the tide of e-waste, however. Environmental advocates note that existing policies have too many loopholes and are not strictly enforced.
One strategy for addressing the e-waste problem is to expand extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an advocacy group working to address the e-waste problem, sees this as one of the best strategies, because it shifts responsibility from consumers and governments to retailers and manufacturers.17 The cost of recycling is the responsibility of manufacturers rather than consumers or the government. The cost of recovery and recycling can be included in the price at the time of sale. This system also incentivizes manufacturers to design products that are easier and more efficient to recycle. But for extended producer responsibility policies to succeed, strict policies on how e-waste is recycled are necessary. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition recommends a system of rigorous certification to ensure that recycling is undertaken safely with minimal risk to workers or the environment. 17 Another strategy is to improve the design of products, to "design out the toxics."
This strategy would put pressure on manufacturers to change the design of their products to eliminate toxic materials and make their products closed-loop recyclable.17 For instance, the RoHS directive placed strict limits, enforceable by fines, on the use of toxins such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and other materials, in electronics. Other countries and some U.S. states have adopted similar policies. As a result, many companies have significantly reduced the use of such toxins in their products, regardless of whether the products of going to be sold in the EU or elsewhere.
Finally, stronger laws are necessary to prohibit the export of e-waste to developing countries. Consultants involved in the industry argue that this can be achieved in two ways: by strengthening the policies that regulate trade in hazardous waste, such as the Basel Convention, and by supporter stronger domestic markets for recycled materials from e-waste.17,18
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