E-waste crisis: Call for better e-waste management strategies


Managing electronic waste (e-waste) has been huge challenge to administrations across the world. Electronic gadgets today comprise a great share of a household income. Laptops, computers, game consoles,  TVs, mobile phones, refrigerators, audio players – the list is endless. The craze for gadgets forces individuals to buy more gadgets than they required often.

Image couresy: abc.net.auWhat comprises e-waste?

E-waste can be categorized into the following based on the nature of their components:

Recyclable and non-toxic: Materials like iron, aluminum, plastic and glass account for over 80 percent of the e-waste. These are less harmful and can be recycled easily.

Hazardous and toxic: Toxic e-waste components include carcinogenic substances like lead and arsenic that also pose serious dangers to the environment if not handled properly.  Other hazardous metals like lithium, mercury, cadmium, nickel, and several rare earth elements are also used in electronics.

Precious e-waste: E-waste contains several precious metals such as gold, silver, platinum and palladium. Though these metals constitute a minuscule share of the total e-waste produced in the world, extraction of these metals has been proven profitable business to e-waste companies. These elements are typically used for plating or providing a conductive layer in electronic circuits. A typical desktop computer, for example, contains 0.0016 percent of its weight as gold.

Non-recyclable e-waste: Though most e-wastes can be recycled, the recycling process of some of them tends to be non-economical. For example, cathode ray tubes are considered one of the hardest types to recycle.

E-waste challenges  

Environmental hazards: Disposing of e-waste into environment leads to severe environmental impacts.  One of the most significant hazards is human beings’ exposure to toxic materials through air, water and “soil-crop-food” pathway. As these metals are non-biodegradable, they remain in the environment for a long period.

Information security threat: Unlawful dumping of lectronic equipments like computers, tablets, laptops and mobile phones pose serious security challenges. They are likely to contain confidential information like credit card numbers, account information, passwords and records of online transactions. In some countries like Ghana, organized criminals exploit these security lapses in e-waste management. According to Wikipedia, several government contracts have been unearthed from hard drives found in Agbogbloshie in Ghana, which is known as a destination for legal and illegal exportation of e-waste from industrialized nation.

E-waste management: An immediate call for action

An estimated 50 million tons of electronic waste (e-waste) is produced each year, and about 13 percent of that weight is recycled mostly in developing countries. An estimated 70 percent of e-waste handled in India is from other nations, according to UNEP.

According to EPA the U.S has the largest e-waste collection in the world, followed by China. EPA figures indicate the U.S had 9.3 million tons of e-waste in 2013, whereas China has around 7.3 million tons of e-waste during that period. The recycling rates remain significantly low in the U.S, says EPA. In 2010, the U.S recycled only 27 percent of its e-waste.

UNEP estimates the amount of e-waste being produced – including mobile phones and computers – could rise by as much as 500 percent over the next decade in some countries, such as India and China thanks to the rapid urbanization in these highly populated countries. Surprisingly India and China are also the popular dumping grounds of e-wastes.

Effective management of e-waste should be on agenda for both developed and developing nations.

(Next: Developing countries – the dumping ground of e-wastes)

Rajani Baburajan