Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to computers, mobile phones and other devices after users have thrown them away.
E-waste has become a new and controversial global challenge. To some e-waste is an environmental scourge to be battled. To others it is an opportunity to enhance economic development.
There are three important characteristics of e-waste. Firstly, in many cases, the ‘waste’ is still functional or can be easily repaired. The device has only become redundant to its first owner.
Moreover, electronic waste contains valuable materials such as copper in wires and gold in circuit boards that make it attractive for recycling. And thirdly, these valuable materials are mixed in a complicated way with other ones, some of which are hazardous or can become hazardous when recycled.
These three characteristics combine to make the e-waste challenge unique.Demand for used electronics is higher in developing countries. This demand, combined with high repair and recycling costs in rich countries, imply that e-waste has more economic value in the developing world than the developed. This value difference has led to a booming international trade in e-waste.
Much of the traded ‘waste’ is electronics repaired and resold in the destination countries, providing employment and helping to bridge the digital divide.There are environmental and human costs, however, from e-waste leftover after repair. An informal sector has emerged that uses destructive processes to recover valuable materials from scrap electronics.
For example, copper in wires is separated from its plastic casing by burning the latter in an open area. The result is emissions violating standards by orders of magnitude.
Gold in circuit boards is recovered using cyanide and nitric acid, the leftover chemicals are often dumped, contaminating local water systems.
Distressing scenes of this informal recycling have become regular fare for the global media. There are three ways the world could be a better job of tackling the e-waste challenge.
Firstly, we should broaden the scope. Governments have treated e-waste as an environmental challenge to be managed via regulation.
In addition to mitigating environmental impacts, it is also important to employ people and bridge the digital divide. Workers in the informal sector, the most affected group, need to be consulted in the development of solutions.
Secondly, we should find better ways to measure data and then reduce e-waste generation. There are huge knowledge gaps on e-waste. This is because governments collect very little relevant data.
It is thus important to do much better at measuring e-waste. New information can shift the perspective on the problem. For example, forecasts of the global generation of e-waste indicate that soon more e-waste will come from the developing world than the developed.
This means that stopping the trade in e-waste cannot solve the problem because domestically generated e-waste would, without intervention, be recycled by the informal sector.
In the quest for better measurement, it is important to distinguish between measurement and hearsay. Numerical “rumours”, without real basis, continue to influence the public discourse on e-waste. This needs to change.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘How to tackle the
challenges posed by e-waste’.