It is a Frankenstein in the making, created out of our insatiable desire to meet the exigencies of modern consumerist lifestyle. Disturbingly, it is fast getting out of our control. If not managed expeditiously and on a war footing then it may burry us all under its massive weight, sooner or later.
Yes, E-waste and its increasingly unmanageable volume are giving sleepless nights to corporations and civic bodies world over. By every aspect of the gargantuan proportion of the problem E-waste has thrown up a plethora of challenges that have a direct bearing on the overall well being of the mankind, planet earth and environment.
Broadly speaking, electronic-waste or e-waste comprises of discarded electrical or electronic gadgets, appliances or equipment being extensively and regularly used by households across the globe: A/C units, metal piping, auto parts, cell phones, gaming systems, computers laptops, hard drives, fax machines and copiers, circuit boards, electrical cords, computer monitors, LED, LCD and plasma screens, lawn mowers, home and commercial stereo systems, speakers, personal electronic items, CD players, computer accessories, commercial and residential refrigerators, radios, gym equipment, heaters commercial, residential, auto and industrial batteries, just to mention a few.
Questions to ponder!
One can go on and on adding. It could be a long enough list to fill up all the pages of this article. But why does everyone want to get rid of this waste and why they are not able to do so? What makes this waste so dangerous and harmful to the mankind and mother Earth? Why it has become such a major cause of worry for nations, in both developed and underdeveloped parts of the globe?
Is Problem too big to handle?
In 2012-13 a whopping 137,756 tonnes of televisions and computer kit were found discarded in Australia. This junk of electrical and electronic junk pile is now projected to grow to 181,000 tonnes by 2027-8. Of course, this number does not include other types of e-wastes like microwaves and DVD players that eventually make it to the nearby landfill. Australia is no exception. The issue of e-waste is already taking its toll on a large number of countries spread across the globe.
The apparent reluctance on the part of developed countries like the US and those in Europe to work out a global mitigation plan to control the menace and absence of stringent legislations to take the problem head on have further aggravated the situation. The International Labor Office (ILO) in its 2012 report ‘The Global Impact of E-waste, Addressing Challenge’ presented a sorry state of affair in so far as developed world’s seeming indifference to the problem go. It said the US is not bound by Basel Convention that controls the trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste and their disposal.
Illegal shipment of e-waste!
Taking advantage of the loopholes, unscrupulous traders export large volume of e-waste to developing countries. According to ILO report 80 per cent of e-waste generated in developed world end up being shipped, often without any legal permission, for their recycling by hundreds and thousands of informal work force. According to a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sponsored study, exporting e-waste to Asia (India, China) is 10 times cheaper than processing it in the US. This obviously points to the high-cost of processing the e-waste for their recycling.
‘The disturbing predictions’
The experts in E-waste management say that by 2018, there will be more PCs discarded in developing countries than in developed ones. Further, they say that by 2020 China and South Africa will account for 200 and 400 per cent increase respectively in e-waste generated from computer waste. In India’s case it will be a huge 500 per cent increase.
All is not lost, yet
On the positive side of the development on E-waste management front, the US House of Representatives in 2011 mooted measures like Responsible Electronic Recycling Act aimed at restricting e-waste from being exported to India, China, Nigeria and other countries. Sweden accounting for collection of 17 Kg of e-waste per person per year is the second best country in e-waste management after Norway. In US some states have since passed –e-waste legislation, in the face of still opposition from a section. E-waste recycling certification like ‘e-stewards standards’ require companies to stop of export of e-waste to developing countries.
Time for action!
The ILO has underlined the need for electrical and electronics manufacturers initiate steps to deal with e-waste at the design level of products. It says that it is imperative that Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bill is passed and initial designs are encouraged to be green, long lived, upgradable and built for recycling. It also calls for protection of workers engaged in recycling hazardous e-waste through appropriate legal measures and formalization of the informal recycling sector.
Things, however, tend to get complicated when there are no definitive attributes to the term Electronic waste or e-waste. In developed, industrialized countries a brand new computer, electronic gadget or electrical appliance dumped by its owner on the city trash bin also falls under the category of e-waste. The same e-waste if it is shipped to a developed country becomes a recycled product. But the fact is more often than not such shipments do not come with their concomitant benefits to the countries of their destinations.
A large chunk of the e-waste goes for informal recycling in big scrap yards of India, China or Nigeria or other developing countries with devastating ramifications for the health of the people engaged in dismantling them and the ecology and environment. Studies have revealed that a typical e-waste contains 1000 hazardous and non-hazardous categories of substances with iron and steel making for 50 per cent of the waste, plastic 21 per cent, non-ferrous metals 13 per cent and other constituents. Electronic scrap components, such as CRTs, are likely to contain contaminants like lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants.
Unscientific recycling- at what cost?
Especially, unscientific recycling of e-waste poses serious threat to environment its flora and fauna. Lead can accumulate in plants and reduce the amount of absorbed light, stunting growth. It can kill populations of bacteria and fungi on leafs and soil. Regulations prohibit agricultural procedures in soils with high concentrations. Cadmium can enter through polluted soil and water. Fish absorb mercury from sediment in water. It can affect animal immune systems and embryonic development.PVC can bind to dust and soil particles and result in problematic bio-retention.
The e-waste includes used electronics meant for their reuse, resale, recycling or disposal. Then there are working and reparable electronics besides secondary e-waste such as copper, steel, plastic, etc. A large volume of the waste is dumped instead of being recycled. Information, communications technology equipment comprise of 50 per cent of the large household e-waste.
Better late than never
Today worldwide over 40 million tone of e-waste is generated annually, accounting for a 4 per cent increase per year. Consumer electronics form about 10 per cent of e-waste. However, more than creating awareness and stricter legislations, the solution to the problem lies in taking responsible decisions on purchases of electric and electronic equipment and gadgets and adopting green manufacturing practices for an effective e-waste management. As the saying goes, ‘A stitch in time saves nine.’ It’s never too late to act.