E-waste is harming our world

But what is e-waste and why are there so many risks associated with it ?

Electronic waste, referred to as e-waste, include all discarded electric or electronic devices. The danger produced from e-waste may come from direct contact with harmful materials and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and chromium but also from inhalation of toxic fumes leaking from the materials.

According to the Institute of Physics, the huge amount of lead in e-waste - if released into the environment - could cause severe damage to human blood and kidneys as well as in the central and peripheral nervous systems. Even some current recycling activities can pose a risk of injury.

To date, there has been some recycling of the valuables elements contained in e-waste such as copper and gold. However these are often extracted using fairly primitive methods such as burning cables to remove the plastic and extract the copper. These methods expose workers, who are often children, to toxic fumes.

According to the WHO, several organisations have highlighted the need for intervention in the field of e-waste. A lot of organisations target children as they are the most vulnerable to be harmed from exposure to e-waste. Children are still growing, harmful substances can affect their development.

So what can you do to help combat e-waste ?

You can sell or donate old electronics. You can maintain electronics properly so they last longer. You can recycle and dispose of e-waste properly. Before buying a new electronic device, consider repurposing an old one. You can store data online to clear storage space and help your electronics devices last longer.

There is good reasons to follow these few simple rules. By recycling one billion cell phones, more than 15 tons of copper, 15 kg of palladium, 350 kg of silver and 35 kg of gold can be recovered. That is not only worth money, recovery will also help to reduce the amount of mining necessary.

Why is it so hard to follow these rules ?

Because today’s electronics devices are made to be replaced. It is called planned obsolescence. Take for example Apple’s latest operating system made extensive use of touch features that required an iPhone 6s and so forth. These kind of features are very common in today’s electronics and so you are forced to replace them.

One has to wonder what happens to the old appliances ? Can they be fully recycled now that their part are no longer needed ?

This situation is further worsened by the economics of gadgets. Very often it is cheaper to buy something new than to fix something old and because of that we find ourselves with two unfortunate situations. The first is the dangerous increase in mining for procurement of the materials needed for the production of gadgets. The second is large amount of electronics in landfills leaking toxicity. What is sad is that this waste could easily be reduced by reuse, repair or resale.

Companies are also to blame as they increasingly end support for older models or the operating system that run on them. E-waste is caused by the whole idea of pushing consumers to buy quickly by making older ones obsolete and it is causing harm to our planet.

It is a complicated issue that requires a complex solution. One such solution would be to require electronics sellers to provide buy-backs or return systems for used equipment. Export limits could also be introduced where the exported quantity has to equal the recycled or reused one. There are plenty of solutions that can be conceived if we put our hearts into it and for the sake of our environment, we should.

Olivier Wartique

April 18, 2020