What is E-waste?
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is generated by discarding any electronic products like VCRs, DVD players, computers, TVs, monitors, cell phones, fax machines, and printers. Around 60 % of the e-waste ends up in landfill, without being recycled. Electronic products contain toxic metals elements like beryllium, cadmium, mercury or lead which constitute an environmental threat when in landfills. Sometimes e-waste is burnt, leading to the release of highly toxic dioxins and furans from burning plastic, polluting the air. Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury can also be released into the air or remain in ashes. When they find their way into the food-chain, especially through aquatic life, they can result in bio-accumulation of poisonous metals, becoming a health risk.
Sources of E-waste
Globally, 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste was produced in 2014, and can rise up to 33% by 2017. It is fast become a major source of toxic waste. There are many reasons for this waste generation. Electronic product development has been very rapid in the past decades. New technology makes previous products obsolete. For example VCRs were replaced by DVDs, which were replaced by Blue-ray players. It is not just technology that changes, but a constant improvement of products leads to new models every year, like TVs and cellphones. Cellphones are notoriously replaced every couple of years. Moreover, the prices of electronic articles are falling making them universally available.
The countries which lead in per capita production of e-waste are nine European countries, namely Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Austria, as well as the USA. These are all rich developed countries, with a consumerist culture. With ample disposable income, people upgrade their technology frequently as it becomes available, and frequently own numbers of an product.
The Importance of Recycling
Another reason for accumulation of waste is that the waste produced is not recycled. There are many laws especially in Europe for the proper treatment of e-waste. Most countries however do not have the facilities to deal with the volume or toxic nature of e-waste. Recycling is also an expensive process,especially when it is done properly with secure and safe technology and conditions. So many countries export waste is to Asia and Africa, where the rules governing e-waste management are lax. In Europe, 47% of the e-waste export, and 50-80% of e-waste export was found to be illegal. The Asian and African countries, however, do not have adequate technology or the means to handle the e-waste. People, including children handle toxic components with bare hands, leading to health problems.
There is some confusion on what constitutes e-waste. Refrigerators are also sometimes included as e-waste. In addition, 30% sent to Ghana was found to be new articles. Many parts like plastic, glass and metals that could be reused are lost in landfills. Moreover, precious metals like gold and silver to the tune of $60 million in cellphones and other electronic articles ends up in landfills in the USA alone. Currently some recycling occurs. Plastic is not recycled in many countries to avoid the release of dioxin and furans. Even during recycling, 30% of the material is lost. One of the best ways to manage e-waste, like any other waste, could be to reduce its production. Creating awareness at many levels is being used as one of the best options.