pile of mobile phone waste

E-Waste – The Dark Side of Tech

 

  • E-Waste is a rapidly growing global problem and often a burden shifted from richer countries to poorer
  • A tremendous drag on global resources and with huge unsolved recycling potential
  • Exacerbated by shorter product cycles and rapid technological innovation
  • A problem with enormous environmental and social impacts 
  • Despite improving regulation many countries are failing to meet their commitments

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is one of the fastest growing waste streams across the world. Rapid technological innovation and increased purchasing power of consumers have led to shortened lifespans and rapid obsolescence of electronic devices. Globally, around 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated each year and it increases at a rate of 3-5% per annum, almost three times faster than the general growth rate of the municipal solid waste stream. However, e-waste/WEEE is not just an issue of rising quantities. It is singled out from other waste streams as it poses a major threat to human and environmental health when it is not managed properly.

What is E-Waste/WEEE?

Although there is as yet no global consensus regarding the definition of the term WEEE/E-waste, according to a popular definition by Basel Action Network (BAN) initiative, a US based NGO: “E-waste encompasses a broad and growing range of electronic devices” ranging from large household appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners to consumer electronics and computers which have been discarded by their users. Rapid technological development exacerbates the trend leading to electronic products frequently being disposed of before the end of their functional life.

Why is E-Waste Important and Relevant for Sustainability?

  1. Tremendous resource depletion caused by discarded electronics. 
  2. If improperly dealt with it can pose a major threat to human health and the environment.
  3. It is one of the fastest growing waste streams due to the rapid obsolescence of electronic devices. 
  4. The transboundary movement of e-waste from developed to developing countries through illegal traffic raises ethical issues and can cause significant environmental damage. However, at least some of these issues can be moderated or controlled through effective e-waste management using of state-of-the art methods of recycling in line with agreed standards (e.g. European standards). This has the potential to create safe job opportunities and new business areas as well as enabling the efficient use of secondary raw materials through extraction and re-use instead of primary mining. This helps to conserve precious resources as well as protecting the environment and human health. Unfortunately, much work remains to be done to prevent illegal e-waste recycling and replace it with legal, safe, and economically sound alternatives.

Resource Depletion and Valuable Material Recovery

A significant barrier to scale recycling comes from the diverse composition of e-waste and the specific requirements for dealing with different appliances. Although it is difficult to generalise the composition of the entire e-waste stream, typical electronic and electrical equipment broadly consists of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, glass, plastics and other materials such as wood and plywood, printed circuit boards, concrete and ceramics and rubber. Contemporary EEE can contain more than 1000 different substances and up to 60 different elements many of which are precious, or hazardous or both. The percentages of materials in the composition of e-waste are, broadly, shown in the chart below.

graph showing Composition-of-E-Waste-by-weight

Figure 1: Composition of E-Waste by weight.
Source: Plotted according to UNEP data.

One of the observable side effects of economic growth has been a corresponding rise in environmental pressures due to increased resource use and waste generation. E-waste is not only an environmental problem when improperly disposed-of, but also has a tremendous manufacturing resource impact that is often disregarded. According to the findings of a UN study, at least 240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals and 1.5 tonnes of water is required to manufacture a desktop computer and screen (Figure 2).

Mining a Gold Ore or Mining E-Waste?

The significance of e-waste recycling not only stems from the waste management perspective, but also from valuable material recovery. The number of precious metals contained within e-waste might exceed the amount of those found in natural metal reserves. Thus, mining e-waste for precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum could, theoretically, be more resource-efficient than mining natural ores. A previous study suggests that one metric ton of circuit boards may contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold than found in the same weight of gold bearing ore. Extracting aluminium from e-waste through recycling can save up to 90% of the energy required for mining new aluminium. A ton of used mobile phones (about 6000 units) yields approximately £9000 in precious metals. Research show that recycling almost 95 to 99 percent of metals can be achieved with the help of state-of-art techniques. Elements used in electronics are highlighted in the periodic table below.

Figure 3: Elements used in electronics

EEE waste represents ~40 million tons of recoverable material each year, which can be made available for the manufacturing of new products. Recent years have seen a rapid decline in raw material reserves across the world and every year new materials are being added to the “critical raw materials list” prepared by the European Commission. Many of the metals used in the electronics industry are classified as strategic metals for present and future technological use. The EU is dependent on importing these metals from abroad as none of them are mined in Europe. By maximizing material recovery through effective WEEE recycling, resources can be conserved not only for the production of new EEE, but also for the use of future generations.

Health and Environmental Hazards

In addition to resource depletion, the disposal of electronic waste poses serious environmental concerns.  Most types of e-waste contain hazardous and toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, selenium, hexavalent chromium, brominated, flame retardants and arsenic. These substances potentially pose serious human and environmental risks when discarded without proper control. 

The dangers from improper disposal practices such as incineration and landfill have been well publicised and include contamination of water and aquatic systems, soils and terrestrial environments as well as toxic airborne pollution. Landfills can allow heavy metals and other toxic substances to leach into groundwater and contaminate drinking water, as well as risking evaporation of volatile substances such as mercury that can be vaporised into the air. Likewise, the incineration of e-waste may generate toxic air pollutants including; dioxins, furans, polycyclic and poly halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs and PHAHs), and hydrogen chloride. 

Guidance regarding application areas, consumption amounts, and health and environmental hazards associated with these hazardous substances are summarised in Table 1.

Growing Quantities

E-waste constitutes about 4 to 5% of the entire municipal solid waste generated worldwide. A majority of the global e-waste stream is generated in Europe, the United States (US) and Australia. However, China, Eastern Europe and Latin America are also expected to become significant e-waste producers in the next decade. Despite their large populations, the annual, per capita e-waste production is still relatively low in these countries, although the absolute volume of e-waste being generated is significant.

Replacement cycles have shortened in some product areas, adding to the problem, as well as shifts in technology such as the development of modern flat screen TVs. The move to thinner and more desirable screens has resulted in increased volumes of discarded ‘old-fashion’ Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors, adding to the environmental problems discussed above.

pile of discarded monitors

Figure 4: Discarded ‘old-fashion’ Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors in a recycling facility
Credit: Judit Klein/Flickr

Countries, as well as intergovernmental organisations including the EU, have been setting standards and collection targets to address the e-waste problem. The EU WEEE Directive which entered into force in July 2012 stipulates the following targets shown in Table 2: 

table

A recent report from the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) highlights that almost all countries across Europe are failing to meet the agreed standards for e-waste collection rates. The report also goes on to show that the destination for the majority of the non-collected waste is either scrap, export or simply unknown.

Graph

Figure 5: Overview of collection rate compared to WEEE Generated for Member States of the EU-28, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway (UNITAR)

Ethical Issues: Transboundary Movements of E-Waste

Given the severe impacts e-waste on human and environmental health alongside its rising quantities, the Basel Convention developed a framework for controls on the transboundary movements and disposal of e-waste through banning the export of hazardous waste outside the OECD countries. The European Community adopted the Basel Convention in 1994. Major receivers of e-waste; India, China, Pakistan, and a few other Asian countries also amended their national laws and regulations to combat e-waste import and improper recycling. However, the Convention has not been ratified by the USA which exports 80 percent of its e-waste to Asia and Africa.

map of export of e-waste

Figure 6: Export routes of e-waste. Source: Greenpeace, BAN

To date the issue has been broadly analysed in three ways; mapping the e-waste flows at international and intra-regional scales, investigating informal e-waste economics on-site and critically engaging with current e-waste recycling policies and schemes. The findings suggest that international e-waste trade is a much more complex activity than the argument that ‘rich’ countries are dumping their hazardous waste in ‘poor’ countries. Nor that waste economies in developing countries are endpoints of global commodity/value chains. Rather, they are hubs for further production where ‘waste’ is transformed into ‘value’ through recycling, repair and/or reuse.

However, the overwhelming majority of these e-waste economies operate under a network of formal as well as informal sectors that entail such concerns as illegal and child labour, as well as poor recycling facilities without safety and pollution control measures which pose major occupational and environmental hazards. 

For instance, Guiyu region of China is one of the prominent waste centres in the South. Before 1995, Guiyu was a poor, rural, rice-growing community which later has been transformed into a booming E-waste processing centre. While the peoples of Guiyu still cultivate rice in the fields, almost all of the available building spaces are allocated to hundreds of large and small e-waste dismantling shelters and yards. Urban spaces are even specialized according to the nature of the dismantling carried out within them. In this way the types of waste and processing are often segregated, one neighbourhood, for example, is involved in dismantling printers while another might process recovered plastics. It is not unusual to see child workers using hammers and chisels and their bare hands, separating the waste into aluminium, steel, copper, plastic and circuit boards.

Child sitting among cable waste

A child sitting among cables in Guy, China.
Credit: Greenpeace.

As the e-waste business in Guiyu developed, it has led to serious environmental and occupational impacts the deterioration of the local drinking water supply. Drinking water is routinely transported to Guiyu from Ninjing due to severe groundwater pollution.
Another example is Sher Shah in Karachi, Pakistan, one of the principal markets for second hand and scrap materials in the South. Like the other centres in the South, Sher Shah serves as an open informal market, without state controls of any kind. The convenience and accessibility of the city port makes Sher Shah an attractive point for e-waste coming from various parts of the world. People work in inappropriate and unhealthy conditions exposing themselves to dangerous toxic e-waste without any protection.

In New Delhi, India, e-waste trade is quite a profitable business for the inhabitants. Many types traditional business such as farming, agriculture and crafts are abandoned and replaced by e-waste recycling. Open burning of circuit boards in the middle of New Delhi neighborhoods is routine and the use of women and child labor to accomplish these tasks is very common practice.Women plucking components from circuit boards with pliers and wire cutters in New Delhi.
Source: Toxics Link India

Conclusion

Setting collection targets and trying to achieve them is a good start for WEEE but there are two important questions yet to be fully addressed: “What is being done with it?” and “Where is it going?” In response to the first question, this paper sought to explain that recycling, reuse, valuable material recovery and value creation from the collected e-waste is vital for effective WEEE management and sustainable natural resource management. If secondary materials are not recovered from e-waste, new raw materials are used to manufacture new products, which in return, result in a fast depletion of resources. By means of maximizing material recovery through effective WEEE recycling, resources can be conserved not only to produce new EEE, but also for the use of future generations. With reference to the second question, WEEE collection activities and the collected WEEE requires strict controls as illegal e-waste trafficking is a serious problem which has significant negative impacts, particularly on the Global South.

Different approaches exist in the literature which claim that this negative flow of impacts from North to South can be converted to positive via effective e-waste management through the use of state-of-the art methods of recycling in line with agreed standards. This should help to reduce illegal e-waste recycling and replace it with legal, safe, and economically sound alternatives, as well as creating safer job opportunities. However, the impetus for change rests with the wealthier countries of the Global North where waste tracking and strict adherence to regulation can enforce a more socially and environmentally responsible approach. Current circumstances are inevitably forcing the peoples of poorer countries to make a tough choice between poverty and toxication, a choice they are given by the irresponsible actions of the countries producing and exporting the waste.

Business Perspectives

Increasing consumer awareness is a key factor for promoting separate collection and recycling of WEEE, as well as developing strategies to alter consumption habits to promote principles of “reduce, reuse and recycle” to build a “circular economy”. Many regional governments around Europe have initiated policies along these lines, backed by improving regulation such as the EU and UK “Right to Repair” laws.

These laws highlight the important role played by designers and manufacturers for the true circular economy. Research suggests that energy consumption and recyclability play an increasing role in consumer purchasing decisions, which in turn spurs companies to respond. IBM and DELL, for example, conduct ambitious product end-of-life management programs, and Apple has pledged to make all its future laptops and iPhones out of renewable resources or recycled materials. Although a positive start there is clearly a long way to go. The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in their report released in 2020, accused companies like Amazon and Apple of dodging their environmental responsibilities for the products they sell. EAC argues that major online retailers and marketplaces such as Amazon have so far avoided playing their part in the circular economy by not collecting or recycling electronics in the way other organisations are required to. According to EAC, Apple have been found to glue and solder together internal components making any repair difficult and economically unattractive.

The other incentive for companies to become more actively involved in recycled materials is cost. Although only ~20% of WEEE is known to be legally recycled, global e-waste produced annually is estimated to be worth over $57 billion, greater than the GDP of many countries. Obviously as commodity prices rise this prize becomes yet more alluring.
Entrepreneurs and investors of all sizes are also seeing the challenge as opportunity. Each year brings a new tide of startups looking to extract precious minerals and rare earth elements from e-waste or refurbishing and reselling used products. Recently, Co-op in the UK partnered with Spring, a e-waste recycling startup, to help its customers recycle their used electronics conveniently. The collection system works via ‘kiosk-style pods’ at different locations where consumers can return their electrical and electronic household equipment and receive payment. Collected products are then either repaired, refurbished, reused or recycled. In order to meet the proposed UK household WEEE collection targets (507,334 tonnes for 2021), it seems that many more collaborations of this kind will be necessary in the near future.

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* Funda Yakar holds a Masters in Environment, Politics and Globalization from King’s College London. She is currently a PhD candidate in the field of Earth System Science. Her research focuses on international climate change law and policy, and human rights implications of climate change. Funda has spent more than 10 years in the public sector gaining hands-on experience at a range of government institutions and agencies concerned with environment, energy, water and agriculture. During her career, Funda has managed a variety of large scale, internationally-funded environmental projects.

References

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EC, (2012) Directive 2012/19/EU of the European Parliament and the Council on Easte Electrical and Electronic equipment (WEEE). Eur-lex.

Eurostat, (2018). Waste statistics – electrical and electronic equipment. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat
Friege, H., (2012). Review of material recovery from used electric and electronic equipment-alternative options for resource conservation, Waste Management & Research 30(9), Sage.

Kuehr, R., Williams, E., (eds.) (2003). Computers and the Environment: Understanding and Managing their Impacts, Eco-Efficiency in Industry and Science, Kluwer Academic Publishers, United Nations University.

Puckett, J., Byster, L., Westervelt, S., Gutierrez, R., Davis, S., Hussain, A., & Dutta, M. (2002). Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, Report by the Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

StEP, (2014) One Global Definition of E-Waste, Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP), White Paper.

UN, (1998). 1998 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. Basel, Switzerland.

UNEP (2013). Policy Brief on E-waste: What, Why and How. International Environmental Technology Centre, Osaka, Japan.

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Yakar, F. (2014). Implementation of the European Union Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive in the UK. King’s College London.

C P Baldé, M Wagner, G Iattoni, R Kuehr (2020). In Depth Review of the WEEE Collection Rates and Targets in the EU-28, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland. United Nations University (UNU), United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)