Do you know what happens to our electronic devices once we dump them? How the world disposes of electronics is cause for concern.
Most of us have to Google the steps required to properly recycle our laptops, handphones and other appliances in our attempt to be environmentally friendly and do the right thing.
Electrical and electronic equipment waste, WEEE or e-waste for short, needs careful handling in order to break the items down to their component parts.
According to the 2015 report The Global E-Waste Monitor, ‘E-waste is a term to cover all items of electrical and electronic equipment and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use.’
The report lists four scenarios in e-waste disposal:
- Official take-back system, where a manufacturer receives obsolete products from customers to recycle efficiently and safely
- The device is simply thrown into the general waste
- Legal collection outside the take-back system for recycling within developed countries
- Collection for refurbishment and also illegal recycling in developing countries
A Wasteful World
In 2014 we generated 41.8 million tonnes (Mt) of e-waste globally. This year it is expected to reach 50 Mt.
Leading the league of e-waste is Asia at 16 Mt. The Americas total 11.7 Mt, and Europe 11.6 Mt.
Out of the six categories, small equipment — kettles, microwaves, fans — tops the list at 12.8 Mt. Small IT items account for 3 Mt, while 6.3 Mt of screens, including laptops, became e-waste in 2014.
An estimated 6.5 Mt was collected for recycling by official channels, a further 0.7 Mt within the European Union alone ended up in general waste, while the remainder has a huge question mark over its final destination.
Among the unknown possibilities is ‘transboundary movement’ under informal collection systems, whereby the e-waste ends up in developing countries.
The Case for Proper Recycling
The ideal, state-of-the-art recycling that we all imagine happens includes the following steps:
- Removal of toxic components
- Pre-processing involving manual dismantling, mechanical separation, shredding, breaking and sequential sorting
- End process to refine base and precious metals, recycle plastics and batteries, treatment of other components and disposal of non-recyclable residues either by incineration or landfill
However all too often we get lazy and just throw old electronic appliances in the bin, representing a large loss of e-waste recovery and recycling.
Despite hoping that our e-waste will be recycled from general waste, most will end up in landfill, leaching toxic chemicals into the soil.
An even worse fate is the incineration plant. Greenhouse gases, as well as mercury and dioxins from PVC burned at low temperatures, end up in the air we breathe.
According to a UN report, only 20% of e-waste is recycled through appropriate channels. The same report cites a lack of data on e-waste at a national level in many countries.
The biggest unknowns are the undocumented exports of e-waste: the amount, the destination and the methods of disposal.
A Developing Problem
According to the Basel Convention it is illegal for developed countries to dump their waste in developing countries. To date there are 53 signatories to the treaty, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Lack of legislation — few developing countries have rules for recycling — creates a culture of dangerous methods for extracting resources from e-waste.
These methods are not only a major threat to the environment, they put the lives of the workers at immediate risk.
Inhaling toxic fumes and handling hazardous chemicals have led to damaged lungs, livers and kidneys, nervous systems malfunctions, blood disorders and eventual death.