The e-waste problem
The amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed recently, with 20-50 million tonnes generated every year. If such a huge figure is hard to imagine, think of it like this - if the estimated amount of e-waste generated every year would be put into containers on a train it would go once around the world!
Electronic waste (e-waste) now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide, nearly the same amount as all plastic packaging, but it is much more hazardous. Not only developed countries generate e-waste; Asia discards an estimated 12 million tonnes each year.
Electronic waste at the Smokey Mountain garbage dump in Manila. Electronic waste is the fastest growing component in the global waste stream amounting to 20 to 50 million tons worldwide with Asia contributing about 12 million tons a year. © Greenpeace / Enrique Soriano
E-waste is now the fastest growing component of the municipal solid waste stream because people are upgrading their mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment and printers more frequently than ever before. Mobile phones and computers are causing the biggest problem because they are replaced most often. In Europe e-waste is increasing at three to five percent a year, almost three times faster than the total waste stream. Developing countries are also expected to triple their e-waste production over the next five years.
Where does e-waste end up?
Many old electronic goods gather dust in storage waiting to be reused, recycled or thrown away. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as much as three quarters of the computers sold in the US are stockpiled in garages and closets. When thrown away, they end up in landfills or incinerators or, more recently, are exported to Asia.
According to the US EPA, more than 4.6 million tonnes of e-waste ended up in US landfills in 2000. Toxic chemicals in electronics products can leach into the land over time or are released into the atmosphere, impacting nearby communities and the environment. In many European countries, regulations have been introduced to prevent electronic waste being dumped in landfills due to its hazardous content. However, the practice still continues in many countries. In Hong Kong for example, it is estimated that 10-20 percent of discarded computers go to landfill.
This releases heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury into the air and
Circuit boards being prepared for export to Malaysia in a disassembly plant. © Greenpeace / J. Soriano
ashes. Mercury released into the atmosphere can bio accumulate in the foodchain, particularly in fish - the major route of exposure for the general public. If the products contain PVC plastic, highly toxic dioxins and furans are also released. Brominated flame retardants generate brominated dioxins and furans when e-waste is burned.
A good way to increase a product's lifespan. Many old products are exported to developing countries. Although the benefits of reusing electronics in this way are clear, the practice is causing serious problems because the old products are dumped after a short period of use in areas that are unlikely to have hazardous waste facilities.
Although recycling can be a good way to reuse the raw materials in a product, the hazardous chemicals in e-waste mean that electronics can harm workers in the recycling yards, as well as their neighbouring communities and environment.
In developed countries, electronics recycling takes place in purpose-built recycling plants under controlled conditions. In many EU states for example, plastics from e-waste are not recycled to avoid brominated furans and dioxins being released into the atmosphere. In developing countries however, there are no such controls. Recycling is done by hand in scrap yards, often by children.
E-waste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing ones, often in violation of the international law. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47 percent of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal. In the UK alone, at least 23,000 metric tonnes of undeclared or 'grey' market electronic waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to the Far East, India, Africa and China. In the US, it is estimated that 50-80 percent of the waste collected for recycling is being exported in this way. This practice is legal because the US has not ratified the Basel Convention.
Mainland China tried to prevent this trade by banning the import of e-waste in 2000. However, we have discovered that the laws are not working; e-waste is still arriving in Guiya of Guangdong Province, the main centre of e-waste scrapping in China.
We have also found a growing e-waste trade problem in India. 25,000 workers are employed at scrap yards in Delhi alone, where 10-20000 tonnes of e-waste is handled each year, 25 percent of this being computers. Other e-waste scrap yards have been found in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai.
How did the trade evolve?
In the 1990s, governments in the EU, Japan and some US states set up e-waste 'recycling' systems. But many countries did not have the capacity to deal with the sheer quantity of e-waste they generated or with its hazardous nature.
Therefore, they began exporting the problem to developing countries where laws to protect workers and the environment are inadequate or not enforced. It is also cheaper to 'recycle' waste in developing countries; the cost of glass-to-glass recycling of computer monitors in the US is ten times more than in China.
Demand in Asia for electronic waste began to grow when scrap yards found they could extract valuable substances such as copper, iron, silicon, nickel and gold, during the recycling process. A mobile phone, for example, is 19 percent copper and eight percent iron.