when we were in school we were often asked to write essays on the merits and demerits of technological evolution. Merits would win hands down. Technology was unfolding before us and as awe-struck as we were with every new scientific invention, their backward fallouts found places in footnotes only.
Maybe, some forty years ago, the world was different; not as polluted as it is today – change in climate was not visibly alarming or the hole in ozone layer was a subject in scientific journals. But things have changed dramatically since then and the harmful upshots of technological grandeur have become a volatile subject across the globe.
Admittedly, the world would still go for newer technological innovations and embrace every new product, especially, the consumer electronic goods of common use ranging from smart phones to television. But unlike in the past, people today are aware of the after effects of the uses of these products, especially about the waste they leave behind. With increasing use of consumer electronics, the waste or the e-waste too is piling up fast and has become a concern across the world.
What is e-waste?
Electronic waste or e-waste is any refuse created by discarded electronic devices and components as well as substances involved in their making. It is the waste of electronic products which have become unwanted, non-working or obsolete and have essentially reached the end of their useful life. Many of them are probably rendered trash despite their uses as newer and better products come to the market.
Rapid product innovations and replacement, especially in information and communication technology and office equipment combined with the migration from analogue to digital technologies and to flat screen televisions are
fuelling the increase in e-waste. Moreover, economies of scale have lowered the prices for many electronic goods which in turn, have increased the demand for newer products leaving behind the erstwhile products as e-waste in a short time.
As many parts of our expanding world cross over to the other side of the ‘Digital Divide’, the contemporary consumer demands the means to enjoy an easier and more comfortable lifestyle. But that very understandable demand creates a downstream problem of safe disposability. The demand is irresistible so the need for a solution becomes ever more urgent.
Why is e-waste a problem?
Unlike other wastes that the world is generating every moment, e-waste is different. Organic and easily recyclable metal, glass and plastic waste need not permanently remain in landfills. But hard-to-recover substances from e-waste like mercury make their home in landfills and keep leaching into ground water. It’s the toxic materials contained in e-waste that makes it harmful to human bodies.
Materials such as mercury, lead, beryllium, brominated flame retardants (BFR) and cadmium used in different quantities to manufacture various electronic goods left on the earth after use cause serious environmental hazard.
For example, even low doses of mercury can be toxic and may cause kidney and brain damage. Many connectors and motherboards include beryllium, which is considered a human carcinogen. Similarly, BFR is known to negatively affect hormonal functions and cadmium when accumulates in body causes kidney damage.
E-waste is growing rapidly
The world is concerned about the rapid growth in e-waste because of its harmful impact on the environment. But how fast is the e-waste growing to cause a global anxiety?
There are no definite estimates of the amount of e-waste the world is generating. The estimate varies based on the methodology used by the concerned organisation. The estimates become more difficult as countries define e-waste differently. For example, while the US includes only consumer electronics such as TVs and computers, European nations include everything that is run by battery or power.
The fact, however, is that despite the variation one thing is common that the amount of e-waste is increasing rapidly across the world. The magnitude of the problem is evident in a recent forecast based on data gathered by United Nations together with various governments and non-government organisations in a partnership known as the ‘Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative”.
The StEP Initiative forecasts that the world will produce about 65 million tones of e-waste in 2017 – about a third more than 49 million tonnes it produced in 2016. That’s about 20 kg for each of the 7 billion people on earth.
With 7.07 million e-waste, the US led the countries which produced the most electronic waste in 2014 according to the latest report by United Nations University “The Global E-waste Monitor 2014: Quantities, flows and recourses”
China was second in the list with 6.03 million tonnes waste in the same year followed by 2.2 million tonnes of Japan, 1.77 million tonnes of Germany and 1.64 million tonnes of India. According to this report the world generated about 42 million tonnes e-waste in 2014.
Region-wise, most of the e-waste was generated in Asia, 16 million tonnes. This was 3.7 kg per inhabitant. However, the highest per inhabitant e-waste at 15.6 kg per inhabitant was generated in Europe. Oceania generated the lowest quantity of e-waste in 2014 but the per capita inhabitant e-waste at 15.2 kg was nearly as high as Europe.
Understandably, the less developed region, Africa generated the lowest per capita e-waste (1.7 kg). The whole continent generated 1.9 million tonnes e-waste. The Americas generated 11.7 million tonnes e-waste at 12.2 kg per inhabitant.
Actions taken by countries to control e-waste accumulation
Maybe the US is generating the largest amount of e-waste or China, the second largest, but the problem is not restricted to either the US or China. The whole world is steadily but surely moving towards a terrible crisis.
Countries are taking various steps and enacting laws to control the devil, but world at large has no uniform rule to mange the
e-waste. There are state-level laws in the US and 65% of its population is covered by a state e-waste law (Electronics TakeBack Coalition 2014). But despite laws only 15% of the e-waste was reportedly collected in 2012.
The performance of China is better. In China, national e-waste legislation manages the collection and treatment of TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners and computers (desktop and laptops). In 2013, China officially collected and treated around 1.3 Mt of these five types of e-waste, which was 28% of the total e-waste generated for all categories.
For Japan, six products, namely air conditioners, TVs, personal computers, washing machines, refrigerators and mobile phones, are regulated. This is nearly 40% of the e-waste generated for all categories investigated in this report
In 2012, only 3.2 Mt of e-waste was officially collected in the 28 member-states of the European Union, whereas 9 Mt of e-waste was generated in 2012 in this region. The European Union is one of the few regions in the world where there is uniform legislation regarding the collection and processing of e-waste.
Back home, India with a steady rise in the use of mobile phones, the second biggest smartphone market, and in internet users has emerged as the fifth largest e-waste generator in the world. Computer devices account for nearly 7% of e-waste another 12% is accounted for by telecom sector. Medical equipment contributes about 8% and electric equipment about 7% in the total e-waste generation. According to Assocham the e-waste is growing in the country at an annual compound rate of 30%.
These pollutants are largely responsible for groundwater contamination, air pollution and soil acidification. To check the multiplication of e-waste the ministry of environment, forest and climate change has notified E-Waste (Management) Rules 2016. The rules, the first time in India, introduced Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) that stipulates for collection of 30% waste in the first two years and up to 70% in seven years.
That the generation of e-waste is increasing is not surprising. It will probably grow at an even faster rate in the coming years with the ever increasing technological progress. Thus, the question is not the growth of e-waste but their management. A strong political will is required across the world to come out with strict regulations to manage e-waste.