Combating the global e-waste crisis
The scope of the global e-waste crisis[edit | edit source]
It’s actually pretty easy to find out where the world’s mountains of electronic waste come from; international NGOs and environmental watchdogs point to North America, Europe and increasingly China as the source of e-waste flows that impact the developed world. Norway, at 28.3 kilograms per capita, is generating more than 70 times the rate of Niger, while the UK generates 39 times that of the Ugandan population. Together, the world generated 48 million tons of e-waste in 2018, making for toxic piles of cast-off mobile phones, old televisions, used batteries and more that is hard to even envision.
It’s not hard to see at all if you live where the e-waste goes, and smell the acrid burning in West Africa or see the groundwater pollution in Southeast Asia. But for the rest of the world, it’s easier to grasp where it came from rather than where “throwing it away” is. About 70 percent of the world’s e-waste was destined for China until Beijing enacted strict new laws on importing recycled waste in 2017, but that didn’t make it disappear: The e-waste just goes to countries like Thailand or Malaysia instead. Poor Indian communities are a destination for European waste, as are West African nations like Ghana.
The catastrophe will only get worse as global consumer markets for electronics grow. Forecasts for 2040 say that 14 percent of carbon emissions will come from production of our phones and laptops; by next year – essentially now, not the future – the billions of devices will be triple the number of people on earth. The scenario’s made worse by the growing need for air conditioning, refrigeration and other appliances. In a warming world, rare earth and other material mining, transport and energy needed to make goods, environmental impact to communties, and links to labor, human rights issues and conflict all add up. By 2050, if nothing is done, there could be 120 million tons of e-waste with nowhere to go.
Public health and environmental impacts[edit | edit source]
E-waste poses serious health issues since it contains hazardous components including lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The risk is especially true for women and children who make up about 30 percent of people in the developing world who work in the e-waste hellscape, desperate to recycle valuable components without proper guards on health and safety. The World Health Organization points to methods used by informal workers to recover value from e-waste, like burning cables to recover copper wire, or toxic mercury exposure without protective equipment.
The 1989 United Nations Basel Convention governs transborder dealing in hazardous materials, but it doesn’t prevent all illegally shipped waste, often passed off as “second-hand” goods. A 2016 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) report found e-waste trafficking attractive to organized crime, and their ability to operate facilitated by poorly enforced or nonexistent laws in destination countries where the e-waste is contaminating air, water and soil, and putting people’s health at risk.
Transforming Agbobloshie in Ghana[edit | edit source]
Ghana and Nigeria are main trafficking destinations from Europe, and the Agbobloshie site outside Accra is known as one of the most polluted places on the planet. Yet not all of its problems come from the West: A United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) study found that the wasteland of Agbobloshie also is built on Africa’s own hazardous waste. Despite the environmental risks and toxic health threats, people’s livelihoods depend on the dump site. Local entrepreneurs decided to take a different approach. They launched a safer and smarter way to manage the e-waste scavenging through Agbogbloshie Makerspace Project (QAMP), including better access to scrap markets using social media, and improved safety information and practices. There’s also training in fabrication of value-added products made from the e-waste, and mentoring with Ghanaian professionals to help informal workers launch real business.
It builds on previous work done at Agbobloshie to build a modern recycling operation, and that’s now becoming reality: Germany is helping to build a USD$30 million facility and deliver thousands of jobs, eliminating the illegal trade while reducing the air pollution, water contamination and toxic exposure.
Hope for a circular future[edit | edit source]
As Ghana breaks ground on its e-waste recycling center, it’s tapping into an estimated $62.5 billion in annual value. There’s now 100 times more gold in a ton of thrown-out mobile phones than there is in gold ore, according to a 2019 report developed by the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), and the “urban mining” generates 80 percent less carbon emissions than extracting gold from the ground. Up to 7 percent of the world’s gold is hiding in the e-waste, but – as with other valuable materials in our electronic goods – we’re only recycling about 20 percent of that e-waste worldwide.
Yet e-waste is so valuable that if it were a country it would equal the total GDP of Kenya and exceed that of 123 nations. Recapturing those valuable resources is one component of a circular economy vision that looks at the entire life cycle and value chain to dramatically reduce the disastrous impacts. That includes consumers, and encouraging them to keep devices across a useful life rather than trade them in for the next big thing as manufacturers up that ante with planned obsolescence and other practices.
A 2017 Greenpeace report on 17 consumer electronics firms – Apple, Huawei and Samsung among them -- found problems including lack of supply chain transparency, a limited use of recycled materials in manufacturing, and a lack of commitment on e-waste. “While a number of brands now offer some voluntary take-back programs, there is little if any reporting on what is actually being collected or where it goes upon collection,” Greenpeace said. “Often ‘recycled’ e-waste ends up at informal recyclers.”
Their counterparts at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) released a video in October 2018 that warns of an e-waste “ticking time bomb” and demands that tech companies be held accountable. Their role in ending the e-waste crisis also should include the development of better materials recovery techniques for metals and plastics, a key component in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation vision for a circular approach that truly works. And for that to happen, the e-waste culture must come to an end.