E-Waste: The Dirty Byproduct of Our Technological Age and How To Deal With It


E-Waste is a novel type of pollution with a range of environmentally degrading impacts. As technology becomes ever more entrenched in our societies, it is imperative that we solve this emerging issue.


You have maybe heard the word “e-waste” before without exactly knowing what it refers to. E-waste refers to the unwanted, inutile electronic products which include but are not limited to computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, and fax machines. In 2019, 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste were dumped globally and only 17.4 % of it was recycled. Having such a substantial amount of discarded e-waste is alarming because most electronics contain toxic materials like beryllium, cadmium, mercury, and lead. These toxic materials in turn pose a serious environmental risk to our soil, food, water, and air and have been known to poison humans and wildlife, especially if the toxins are in high concentration. The bittersweet reality of e-waste is that there are a number of direct solutions to combat the detrimental effects of discarding it, yet these are considered because little is known and understood about the issue. Therefore, the aim of this article is to raise awareness about e-waste by providing a detailed explanation as to what e-waste is and why it deserves attention 

What happens when you throw away your e-waste?

If you want to understand and do something about e-waste, you need to understand how you may be contributing to it. Below is a diagram of what happens to electronic devices when they are discarded in a landfill as opposed to being recycled or repurposed. 

Figure 1: The dirty cycle of e-waste pollution.

As Figure 1 demonstrates, a used MacBook is thrown away and piles up in a landfill. The e-waste is then incinerated, which causes a heavy release of metal toxins in the air, soil, and water. These toxins are then absorbed by plants, animals, and humans, causing detrimental impacts.

Fortunately for us, there is a simple solution to the crises posed by e-waste: recycling. It is imperative that we get e-waste recycling rates (which are still stubbornly low) to increase. If we do not act now and take a pre-emptive stance to resolve the disposal of e-waste, it will be too late and the damage to the environment insurmountable.

Recycling e-waste includes recovering valuable parts within devices and providing manufacturers with recycled metals so that they can be used to make new products. The most obvious impact of recycling of e-waste is keeping harmful devices out of landfills, preventing the leaching of toxic materials and hence, protecting human and environmental health.

Below is a diagram explaining the process of recycling e-waste.

Figure 2: GRX is one of the largest recyclers of used computer equipment.

What is going on with E-Waste Right Now?

As established, there is an increased usage of electronic devices, particularly in households and businesses. To curb the negative effects of this growing production and the resultant waste, effective legislation targeting sustainable e-waste management has been adopted by some nations such as the UK. The UK has implemented the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and the Restriction of Hazardous Substances in electrical and electronic equipment directives. To facilitate the implementation of these directives, the UK has designed a specified facility responsible for recycling e-waste in all its forms (laptops, coffee machines etc.). This facility not only diverts e-waste from landfills – preventing it from becoming hazardous – but also processes several hundred tonnes of electronic waste each year.

Like the UK, there are many organisations and initiatives being taken to manage and effectively deal with the issues of e-waste. Such organizations include:

Reuse Orbis: A youth led social organisation which tackles the problem of electronic waste and its mismanagement by increasing awareness on the issue and initiating collection drives to ensure its appropriate recycling. This organisation has led operations in India (Delhi, Haryana, Gujarat, Nagaland, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra), USA (Texas, Washington, California), China (Shenzhen and Guangzhou), Canada, the UK, Australia, and France, and has a network of partners consisting of governments, companies, education consultancy firms, recyclers, schools, student societies, universities, media companies, banks and more.

Reuse Orbis acts as a middleman between consumers of technologies and government-licensed recyclers. Students collect unused and discarded electronics (e-waste) from consumers and deliver them to recyclers who separate and extract metals, which are then melted down instead of incinerated to release harmful gases. 

What makes Reuse Orbis particularly innovative is the fact that its functioning is fundamentally imparted on passionate students, who are given the flexibility to schedule and design their own projects with regards to raising awareness and tackling e-waste management. For instance, students host awareness and collection drives in company offices to explain to employees the risks presented by e-waste. 

Panasonic: Donates various recycling bins to schools and RWAs to encourage young and old alike to join the e-waste collection drive with a commitment to safe disposal of electronic waste.

Apple: The company has come up with highly innovative way of tackling e-waste disposal via Daisy the recycling robot. Daisy disassembles and recycles used iPhones returned to Best Buy stores throughout the US and KPN retailers in the Netherlands. Each Daisy can disassemble 1.2 million devices per year. Daisy recovers important materials for reuse which are then recycled back into the manufacturing process.

Figure 3: Apple’s Daisy in action.

Customers can also turn in their eligible devices to be recycled at any Apple Store or through apple.com as part of the Apple Trade In programme. Apple has received nearly 1 million devices through these Apple programmes.

To further its research on recycling, Apple also announced the opening of its Material Recovery Lab dedicated towards discovering future recycling processes. The new 9,000-square-foot facility in Austin, Texas, will look for innovative solutions involving robotics and machine learning to improve on traditional methods like targeted disassembly, sorting, and shredding. The Lab will work with Apple engineering teams as well as academia to address and propose solutions to today’s industry recycling challenges.

International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC): Provides technical and advisory support to national and local governments to enhance their use of environmentally sound strategies and approaches. IETC has initiated an activity to develop an action-oriented policy for E-waste management in Sri Lanka and will support the Government of Sri Lanka to strengthen the e-waste management in the country by developing an action-oriented policy on e-waste management. The policy will cover issues including institutional aspects, sustainable financing mechanisms, infrastructure, health and environment, gender, and stakeholders.

The IETC will also be holding an “E-waste Academy” in Sri Lanka to provide knowledge and facilitate discussion regarding e-waste management. 

The actions carried out by these organisations and initiatives are vital for the sustainable progression of e-waste management. However, the current statistics on e-waste provided earlier on in this article indicate that measures of e-waste management including raising awareness of the related issues, needs to take place on a global scale and at a more rapid rate if we are to effectively minimise or completely eradicate the issues of hazardous e-waste disposal.

Conclusion

Global consumption of electronics is increasing because every year we create more e-waste. The growing waste results from streams in the industrialised world, growing demand and sales for electronic products and the absence of a mentality to reuse instead of producing. If we proceed with a “business as usual” attitude, the amount of e-waste will be more than doubled by 2050 and along with it, there will be dire consequences to the environment and us humans. To avoid such a result, we need to make significant and sustainable changes to the production, use, and disposal of e-waste. We also need to promote and involve ourselves with the many solutions and initiatives that currently exist with regards to e-waste management. 

By Akshika Kandage, Assia Tej, and Jacob Tan

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