The E-waste Crisis

Published by Ocean Generation \ August 20, 2018 9:07 am

The digital age is rapidly changing life as we previously knew it. Electronic and online services are transforming almost every avenue, from industry and political landscapes, to the way that we communicate with our loved ones. The growth rate of mobile devices is five times higher than that of the human population. The daily impact of this digital shift is clear, even to the untrained eye. When we consider the measure at which we use electronic goods within our daily lives, it comes as no surprise that electronic waste, or ‘e-waste’ was identified by the United Nations as the fastest growing sector of municipal solid waste in both economically developed and developing countries. Antonis Mavropoulos, President of the International Solid Waste Association, considers e-waste to be ‘the most emblematic by-product’ of the digital transition. In 2018, consumers now expect to purchase a new phone every year, a new laptop every 5-10 years, an upgraded television, new hairdryer, better vacuum cleaner. Fast paced innovation and economic growth brings a rapid turnover of electronic goods among consumers and consequently, enormous amounts of e-waste. Global e-waste is predicted at almost 50 million tons for 2018. This number is expected to increase between 4 and 5 per cent every year. If current behaviours continue, we could be producing almost 80 million tons by the year 2030, the equivalent weight of roughly 180,000 full size lorries. 

In 2015, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that each year, up to 90% of the world’s electronic waste, worth nearly £12 billion, is illegally dumped or traded in African and Asian countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, India, and Vietnam. Prior to January of this year when stricter legislation was introduced by the Chinese government, 70% of all electronic waste was transported to China, where it was willingly received. As legislators established that the environmental impact far outweighed the short-term profit, waste once destined for China is now being rerouted to Thailand, where environmental laws are far more lax. Customs officials in Thailand say at least 52,000 tons of electronic waste had already been imported in the first five months of 2018, compared to the 64,000 tons that were imported throughout the whole of 2017. A report from Sky News found waste imports in Thailand from over 30 different countries, including the UK. Thailand’s deputy national police commissioner, Wirachai Songmetta, told the investigators: “We have seen every country, all over the world, trying to dump their hazardous waste on Thailand. Thai people do not want this.” Environmental campaigners they say tougher laws are needed to stop these illegal imports. 

Economically developed parts of the world such as Europe and North America transport waste through extensive smuggling networks and falsely labeled shipments. The absence of an international standard to define what constitutes hazardous or toxic waste, makes it relatively easy to smuggle e-waste across borders. This is further enabled by a host of actors involved in the lucrative black market for electronic waste. An investigation by The Guardian described some of the Thai recycling set-ups as ‘frightening’, using ‘primitive and contaminating methods’ to extract valuable metals such as gold and copper, while discards are burned in vast incinerators that produce toxic smoke. Materials are left to corrode, allowing harmful chemicals such as lead, mercury and chromium to contaminate the soil and water of inhabited areas. The impact of this contamination on human health is damaging and irreparable, leading to neurological and endocrinal disorders, and even cancer. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that children are more vulnerable to these health issues, as their intake of air, water and food in proportion to their weight is significantly greater than that of adults. Research conducted at a university in China found that it was common for children living near e-waste recycling towns to have health-threatening levels of lead in their bloodstreams. This is known to affect the liver, kidneys, bones, brain and can even lead to death. The unregulated recycling of e-waste also effects local economies. In Bangkok, shrimp farmers have claimed that an illegal site near the farm has poisoned the water in the shrimp pond, as rain allows chemicals to flow in the pond, killing the shrimp. 

As the global e-waste situation reaches crisis levels, the need for responsible and sustainable recycling of electronic goods is becoming desperate. In March of this year, Greenpeace estimated that just 16% of e-waste is recycled responsibly. An EU Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment directive is set to come into effect in 2019 that will require member states to recycle or collect 65% of all equipment sold or 85% of all wasted electronics. Due to Brexit, however, it is unlikely that the UK will be part of that programme. Without EU guidelines, it is down to environmental campaign groups and activists to pressure government to bring about much needed changes. 

By Arianne Sheppard

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