E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in developed as well as in developing countries. Credit: UNEP
Each year, the electronics industry generates up to 41 million tonnes of e-waste, but as the number of consumers rises, and the lifespan of devices shrinks in response to demand for the newest and best, that figure could reach 50 million tonnes this year, according to specialised studies.
Of all these tonnes of noxious waste, a staggering 60-90 per cent of e-waste –worth nearly 19 billion dollars– is illegally traded or dumped, often with the involvement of transnational criminal gangs, a UN Environment Programme(UNEP) research had already warned a couple of years ago.
West Africa has been reported by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to be a major destination for electronic waste, while some Asian countries are also recipients of millions of tonnes of these toxic materials, sometimes as part of so-called trade free agreements with Western countries.
Old computers and mobile phones, electric cables, televisions, coffee machines, fridges, old analogue radios are piling up in landfills across the world, UNEP explains. According to the research, e-waste often contains hazardous materials, which pose risks to human health and the environment, especially in developing countries.
Risk for Human Health
According to the Global Partnership on Waste Management, inappropriate methods like open burning, which are often used by the informal sector in developing countries to recover valuable materials, have heavy impacts on human health and the environment.
According to the report, the illegal dumping of waste in developing countries is where health problems start to creep in. Children in developing countries are exposed as family members try to recycle at home or are forced to recycle themselves, or simply by living or going to school close to dumps. They are especially vulnerable to the health risks as their bodies are still developing, the report adds.
A Criminal Business
“It is illegal to export e-waste, but extensive smuggling networks classify the waste as second-hand goods and dump it in places like Ghana, India, Pakistan and Brazil,” said Dr. Christian Nellemann, head of the Rapid Response Unit at the Rhipto-Norwegian Center for Global Analyses and author of UNEP’s e-waste report.
“Tricks include declaring waste batteries as plastic or mixed metal scrap, and cathode ray tubes and computer monitors as metal scrap. Both small and large-scale smuggling techniques can be seen all over the world, from organized truck transport across Europe and North America to the use of major smuggling hubs in South Asia, including widespread container transport by sea.”
Insufficient control over waste removal is another loophole exploited by criminals, who collect payments for the safe disposal of waste, which they later dump or recycle unsafely, the study warns.
Solutions to combat illegal and unsustainable handling of e-waste are emerging. Recovering valuable metals and other resources locked inside electronic products, for example, can reduce the amount of e-waste produced, diminishing pressure on the environment, creating jobs and generating income.
Modern World Without Electronics?
The United Nations might be right –and at least realistic– when it says that it is impossible to imagine the modern world without electronics. In fact, it seems to be already too late to think of such a hypothetical scenario.
Smartphones that serve as umbilical cords to the digital world; fridges and air conditioning systems that keep our food fresh and homes cool, as the UN Environment Programme says, as well as computers, blenders, games consoles, electric cars, solar panels.
“These inventions have undoubtedly transformed our lives for the better – allowing us access to information and resources, instant communication and freeing up our time so we can get on with doing things we enjoy.”
But the UN is definitely right when it also says that every silver lining has a cloud, and in this case, it’s a big one: e-waste.