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The Dark Side of Technology. What REALLY Happens to your E-waste?

 

How many phones, computers or other electronic devices have you had in your life? Was it because of the need for an upgrade or just because we can? Electronics and modern technology have become essential items that we rely on for communication, entertainment, etc. On a wider scale, technology has offered unprecedented opportunities for emerging economies to transition towards creating ‘smart’ cities that could potentially accelerate the progress towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). 

Although the advancement of technology has helped in making cities smart and created a more digital and interconnected world, it also comes with the costs of environmental challenges and risks to human safety and wildlife. 

 

Ocean plastic pollution has been the centre of discussion as one of the major environmental challenges our world faces today. An emerging 21st-century problem of pollution is now directly related to our reliance on technology, this is known as electronic waste (e-waste). Precious and rare-earth minerals, metals and resources of outdated and obsolete models of electronics are being mindlessly dumped into landfills located in poor developing countries around the world. 

 

Global e-waste is the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. 

 

In 2019, alone, the world generated 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste and this is projected to increase to 120 million tonnes by 2050. How does this have an impact on the planet? The volume of e-waste produced worldwide and the lack of infrastructure provided for managing e-waste recycling presents a danger to the environment as well as human health. The process of recycling in landfills, especially in poor countries without enforced policies and regulations, include open burning, incineration without protective measures and dumping. 

 

Considering that the increase in e-waste is a relatively new concern, there have been numerous efforts by governments and world organizations to implement specific policies in relation to managing e-waste. However, for many developed countries recycling e-waste is considered to be not cost-effective as a result of their strict policies concerning labour safety and the environment. Thus, a vast majority of developed countries opt to dispose or recycle their e-waste by sending them to countries like Ghana, Bangladesh and India as they have more lax laws and policies regarding the management of e-waste. 

The manufacturing process of technology and electronics involves mining rare-earth metals which are essential components in many everyday devices such as phones, computers, etc. As demand for new technology persists to increase, the demand for scarce rare-earth metals also increases. Mining scarce metals and resources poses an environmental threat. China is the largest producer of rare-earth metals and its large-scale production has shown that mining heavy metals containing radioactive materials is not environmentally sustainable as it consumes large amounts of water and energy, and generates radioactive emissions into water bodies, soil and air near mine sites. Simultaneously, the process of delivering those materials and resources for its next stage of production involves transport which accumulates to global carbon emissions. 

 

Despite there being numerous recycling facilities or options provided by companies like Apple where trade-ins or buyback of old devices are encouraged, the issue of e-waste does not stop here. E-waste has become subject to the same treatment as normal waste, ending up in landfills with only a small percentage being recycled. 

 

Only 17.4% of 2019’s e-waste was formally collected and recycled. 

 

The remaining 80% of global e-waste is often incinerated or dumped in landfills such as Agbogbloshie, located in the centre of the capital city of Ghana, Accra. The slum of Agbogbloshie is one of the largest e-waste dumps covering approximately 20 acres with a mushrooming stream of metal scraps, screens, cables, chips and motherboards. This urban landfill is filled with the world’s poorest workers trying to manually dismantle thousands of tonnes of e-waste for subsistence. The minerals and metals contained in e-waste are highly toxic and without a reliable and sustainable system of waste management, toxic substances such as mercury and brominated flame retardants contaminate the environment and threaten the people living, working and playing in e-waste scrap yards. 

 

About 98 million tonnes of e-waste leak from scrap yards each year, equivalent to 0.3% of global emissions.

 

Another important factor that contributes to the rise in e-waste is obsolescence. E-waste is mainly fuelled by more people buying electronic devices with shorter life cycles and fewer options to repair. As the demand for new devices persists, current or older devices become obsolete. What this means for the consumer is that as newer devices become more advanced, their current or older devices may become unusable be it due to incompatibility with current software or due to wear and tear. 

 

What can we do?

 

Recycling might seem simplistic, however, it can have immense benefits towards sustainability. Recycling old electronic products is 13 times more cost-effective for manufacturers than extracting new minerals from natural deposits. Apple has made efforts towards carbon-neutral initiatives promoting circular supply chains and setting up recycling programmes encouraging consumers to participate towards sustainable consumption. 

Consumers play as large of a role as the manufacturers. Therefore, we should be more mindful of our decision-making process when we plan to acquire new technology. This could be done by considering the products’ environmental impact and also only purchasing products out of necessity. Besides recycling, we could opt to buy second-hand electronic devices from local companies specialising in electronic refurbishment and repair to maximise the life cycle of the product. 

 

Nevertheless, in line with SDG 12 of Sustainable Consumption and Production, technological companies, as well as worldwide governments, should consider the negative impacts of the manufacturing process of devices and the post-consumer stage of the product’s life cycle. Environmental policies and regulations directly related to e-waste management should be enforced in poor developing countries to provide the necessary infrastructure to better manage the recycling process to hamper the environmental and health impacts. Manufacturers should also be encouraged to apply an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) approach ensuring that the responsibility of the producer reaches the post-consumer stage of a products’ life cycle including its final disposal.

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