Like with everything that humans have created in the last 200 years, the proliferation of cheap electronics is threatening our planet. When a device becomes obsolete most people just chuck it in the trash (even though a lot of municipalities have designated places to drop off your old devices for recycling). This has some significant and global consequences that we as technologists ought to be more vigilant about avoiding.
What is E-Waste?
Any electrical or electronic device that is discarded can be considered e-waste. Every year we globally generate about 50 million tons of it. These devices range from mobile phones and computers, to electronic toys and televisions. The UN reports that it’s a growing risk to the environment and human health. According to them:
In 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated, an increase of 3.3 million metric tonnes, or 8 per cent, from 2014. Experts foresee e-waste increasing a further 17 per cent to 52.2 million metric tonnes by 2021.
Some of this stuff is stripped down for parts and recycled, but the vast majority is just sent to a landfill or incinerated. CRT (cathode ray tube) televisions and computer monitors are said to be some of the most difficult equipment to recycle, and most of the time is just incinerated.
Where does it go?
Despite the recycling rate being so low, the computer recycling industry can be very profitable. Computers are full of valuable metals and other components, and can be stripped down. There are trace amounts of silver and gold that add up to an estimated $55 Billion. There are places around the world where people strip down these parts by hand and then send the extracted metals to smelters to be made into new electronic components.
China in particular has served as a dumping ground for e-waste for decades and has recently passed legislation banned the import of e-waste from other nations. Guiyu is considered to be the largest e-waste site in the world, with over 60,000 workers processing every day. The result of all of this waste being processed in this region is widespread health problems. Many of the heavy metals and other chemicals used in processing (and in the devices themselves) are toxic to the environment. It has made the water in Guiyu undrinkable. 80% of the children of Guiyu are reported to have lead poisoning, and miscarriages are much higher than the national average. Since the ban on importation of e-waste, the Chinese government has cracked down on environmental safety in this industry, but many areas are still contaminated.
Despite developed nations’ efforts to protect themselves from this kind of environmental catastrophe, the developing world is still suffering under the deluge of waste. In Agbogbloshie, Ghana there is another gigantic dumping ground for e-waste. The locals burn electronic parts in open pits to extract the copper from wiring, or aluminum from computer cases.
Young men burning wires from auto harnesses and electronics have been the subject of several photojournal essays. The workers, mostly young men, disassemble cars, appliances, and scrap electronics gathered in wheeled push carts from Accra neighborhoods. Revenue from the recovery of metals such as copper, aluminum and iron, produce very low wages. Several British news outlets have made the recycling workers a cause celebre. Photographs of workers burning old wire on top of tires and plastic in order to melt the plastic, or dismantling the waste with their bare hands and stones, have been popularized by the press. Magnets from electronics are shown used to gather the smallest of ferrous metal scraps. The remaining materials are further burned or dumped nearby.
Are there any solutions?
So this all sounds pretty bleak. What can we do? There is no single solution to a global problem like this, but there have been some promising ideas and changes in perspective.
Well many grouchy old men have been complaining that they don’t make stuff that you can fix yourself anymore. They’re absolutely correct. Due to many economic and intellectual property reasons, manufacturers have been increasingly producing goods with no serviceable parts. The right to repair is a growing movement of people who are lobbying for legislation to allow consumers to repair their own devices, rather than having to bring them to an authorized technician. The hope is that if people are able to just find replacement parts for their electronics, in the event that they do have to discard a broken component, they wont have to discard the entire device.
Some have argued that we should also change the way we make consumer goods. Things such as using recycled material in the construction of new products, using safer and less toxic components, building devices to be more biodegradable. This approach would be less damaging to communities even if there is still mass discarding of their old gadgets. This is certainly a net-gain for the world and for the consumers.
Another avenue has been innovations in recycling processes. By scaling up the process to an industrial scale, it has been worthwhile for smelting companies to recycle the parts and extract precious metals directly. This is done in safer and more regulated environments than in the informal waste dumps of the like found in Africa and Asia.
But really, we should just be more mindful of our consumption of electronics. Resist the urge to upgrade your gear unless you really need it and try to find responsible recycling for your old devices.