Ewaste is a term used to describe any electrical or electronic products that have reached the end of theiruseful life.” Computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, and fax machines are common examples of ewaste.

The Challenge

According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme, ewaste is the fastestgrowing type of waste in the world. The world generated around 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste in 2019 and it is estimated to rise up to 74 million tonnes by 2030.

The annual global e-waste in 2019, if properly treated could have recovered gold, silver, copper, platinum, and other high-valued materials of worth 57 billion USD – a sum greater than the GDP of most countries. The stark reality is that it was instead burnt or dumped in landfills.

a chart representing the global e-waste production in 2019. the chart shows a comparison between Asia, Americas, Europe, Africa, and Oceania

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that only 1520% of ewaste is recycled, the rest ends up in landfills or is incinerated. Ewaste contains a variety of toxic and hazardous materials that can pose serious health and environmental hazards if not properly managed. For example:

Lead: Lead is a toxic metal that can cause serious health problems if it enters the body. Lead is found in the cathode ray tubes (CRTs) of televisions and computer monitors. When CRTs are broken or crushed, lead can be released into the environment.

Mercury: Mercury is a toxic metal that can cause neurological and developmental problems. Mercury is found in fluorescent light bulbs and cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs). When these bulbs are broken, mercury can be released into the environment.

Cadmium: Cadmium is a toxic metal that can cause kidney damage. Cadmium is found in rechargeable batteries, such as those used in laptop computers, cell phones, and digital cameras.

PVC: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a type of plastic that contains harmful chemicals, including lead, cadmium, and mercury. PVC is found in some computer cables, mouse pads, and keyboard covers.

The social impact of e-waste

According to a report, women and children constitute around 30% of the workforce in e-waste processing. This exposes them to higher radiation and emissions, thus also risking the health of future generations. Research has shown a high rate of stillbirth and birth defects due to the presence of toxic elements in the bloodstream of such women. Data shows that China has around 690,000 people working undocumented in the e-waste processing sector. This number stands at around 100,000 in Nigeria. Given the lack of sufficient technological infrastructure for processing the e-waste, the basic approach remains in burning the plastic of e-waste and recovering the valuable metal. This further creates havoc of toxic air fumes in the region.

Furthermore, the toxic elements from e-waste when absorbed in the soil can penetrate up to the groundwater levels. Additionally, the fumes from the e-waste pollute the neighboring farms producing food for the area.

How are developed countries playing their role in managing E-Waste?

The illegal export of ewaste from developed countries to developing countries is a major environmental and health problem. In many cases, these exports are done in violation of international agreements and local laws. The Basel Convention, an international treaty, bans the shipment of hazardous waste from developed countries to developing countries, but the treaty has not been fully effective in stopping illegal trade. This results in toxic materials being dumped in countries that lack the infrastructure to properly deal with them. This can cause serious life-threatening issues for the people who live near the dump sites.

As per a report from the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the UN E-Waste Coalition, around 1.3 million tonnes of e-waste are illegally exported from the EU to developing countries.

A map showing the global e-waste production, which country produce most and the least, and which country send the e-waste to other countries
Source: Lewis 2011, The Global E-waste Statistics Partnership, 2018

The global opportunity

One tonne of discarded cell phones consists of around 100 times more gold than a tonne of gold ore. It is estimated global e-waste contains around 7% of the world’s gold. Similar facts exist for other high-valued materials, however, recovering these from e-waste requires some very advanced technologies. This also brings an opportunity for nations to come together to work on the proper e-waste handling technologies. Research shows that recovered metals are around 7 times more energy-efficient than virgin metals. Additionally, these also produce around 80% lesser emissions than virgin metal.

If proper regulations, infrastructure, and technical solutions are brought into place, it is estimated that only the smartphone’s raw material recycling market is worth 11.5 billion USD. This can not only solve the emerging issue of resource scarcity but also promotes new job creation and environmental safety.

What can be done on individual levels?

If you have any old electrical items that you no longer want or need, then consider selling them to one of these companies. Not only will you earn some extra cash, but you’ll also be doing your bit to help the environment. There are several companies that pay for e-waste, either in cash or in-store vouchers.

While there are initiatives to recycle e-waste, it is utterly necessary to pay attention at the individual level. We can minimize our e-waste footprint by being mindful of our purchasing decisions and opting for electronics with a longer lifespan. One of the biggest contributors to e-waste is the constant upgrading of devices. We’re always being told that the latest and greatest gadget is a must-have, but often times, it’s not an improvement over what we already have. Before you upgrade to the latest model of anything, ask yourself if it’s really necessary. If it’s not, stick with what you have. Furthermore, when something breaks, our first instinct is to replace it with a new one. But sometimes, all it needs is a little repair.

By making justified purchasing decisions, we can help in reducing global e-waste production. Let’s make it happen!