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E-Waste Global Trends

Health Impacts and Strategies for Reducing your Workplace E-Waste

E-Waste Global trends

The Internet revolution might have drastically revolutionized and impacted our lives, our lifestyle and the way we communicate, but it has eventually caused dangerous harm to our environment as well. It may sound strange, but our growing urge to buy new laptops, tablets, and mobile devices – while abandoning our old ones into the rubbish- has given birth to a new eco-disaster i.e. e-waste or electronic waste. While we brag about our commitment to a green earth, our own activities project otherwise. All those dumped appliances end up in a landfill somewhere, leading to pollution and harming our planet Earth (Perkins et al, 2014).

What is E-waste?

E-waste is a formal name given to the discarded electronic appliances nearing the end of their “lifespan.” The discarded electronic products include; computers, mobile phones, fax machines, TVs, air conditioners, laptops, tablets, refrigerators, VCRs, music systems and copiers. A synonymous term to e-waste is Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) (Sinha et al, 2005). The thrown away appliances are termed as electronic waste or e-waste.

Electronic gadgets have always generated waste, but the volume of trash has increased tremendously in recent years.

There was a time when households used a TV for more than a decade, but thanks to growing technological advancements and growing demand of customers, there is hardly any electronic gadget that is not swapped within one year from the time it was bought. Many of the electronic appliances though can be recycled or refurbished, yet a huge chunk ends up in a landfill. E-waste is a burning global ecological issue (Cucchiella et al, 2015).

According to Smith (2015),37.8 million metric tons of electronic waste was produced globally in 2012. The UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) estimated that this volume of e-waste is enough to be accommodated the hundred Empire State buildings and averages to more than 6.8 kilograms for every living human.

The world population is approximately 7.1 billion and there are approximately at least 6 billion mobile devices. China in 2012 alone, is believed to produce 11 Mt of electronic waste and the US produced 10 Mt. This means that, on average, each American produces 29.5 kg of electronic waste in comparison to 5 kg/person in China. These figures likely underrate the real volumes of electronic waste. Table 1 throws light on the amount of electronic waste generated every year globally.

Table 1.The global quantity of e-waste generated (Breivik et al, 2014)

Year E-waste generated (Mt) Population (billion) E-waste generated (Kg/person.)
2010 33.8 6.8 5.0
2011 35.8 6.9 5.2
2012 37.8 6.9 5.4
2013 39.8 7.0 5.7
2014 41.8 7.1 5.9
2015 43.8 7.2 6.1
2016 45.7 7.3 6.3
2017 47.8 7.4 6.5
2018* 49.8 7.4 6.7
2019* 49.9 7.5 6.7
2020* 50.0 7.6 6.8

*Data 2018 onwards are forecasts.

The world market of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) has increased at a very rapid rate while the lifespan of these products has become increasingly shorter. E-waste is the fastest growing issue and is expected to increase to a whopping 50 MT by 2020(Tiwari & Dhawan, 2014).

The alleviated life course of electronic and electrical gadgets is producing a huge volume of electronic waste, which is increasing every year. The drivers of greater volumes of electronic waste are alleviated lifespan of e-gadgets, rapid obsolescence, the higher price of recycling and limitations in environment-friendly recovery methods (Bhutta et al, 2011).

As per US-based Market Research, twenty to fifty million metric tons of electronic waste is generated globally every year. Mobiles and other gadgets consist of huge quantities of precious elements like silver and gold.

The US alone dumps mobile devices containing around sixty million dollars in silver/gold each year.

Unfortunately, only about 13% of this e-waste is recycled and that too in developing nations. Around nine million tons of this trash is generated by EU alone, according to UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) and as per UN agencies, this percentage of waste being recycled is too low.

Unfortunately, millions of tons of electronic waste are dumped in the third world countries illegally by the developed nations. Waste is transported to Africa or Asia under deceitful pretense. Most of the waste is categorized as ‘second-hand goods’ although, in reality, it is trash and dead.

The second-hand goods are transferred to the black market and impersonated as used stuff to escape the expenses involved in proper and legitimate recycling. In the third world countries, the treatment and recycling of electronic waste occur in the informal sector, leading to pollution of the environment and health risks for the masses (Sthiannopkao & Wong, 2013).

Informal recycling hubs in developing nations like China, India, Vietnam, Philippines, and Pakistan take care of 50-80% of this electronic waste, including burning, segregation, disposal, shredding and dismantling. Harmful gases that are produced in these recycling processes are causing tremendous harm to human health and the environment.

Health impacts of electronic waste if not managed and disposed of sustainably

Electronic waste consists of a huge volume of toxic and obnoxious substances that pollute the environment and are a threat to human health if not managed and disposed of sustainably. Electronic waste disposal techniques include landfilling and incineration, both of which pose serious contamination risks.

When scraps are put in landfills, it converts into leachate that has dissolved or entrained environmentally toxic substances which find their way into the groundwater.  Incinerator combustion pollutes the atmosphere with poisonous gases. Recycling of electronic waste also releases obnoxious gases into the environment and pose a threat to human health.

The toxic elements present in electronic waste include brominated flame retardants, persistent organic pollutants (POPs like dioxins), Nickel, Barium, Chromium, Silver, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, Cadmium, Lithium, Molybdenum, polychlorinated biphenyls, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (PCDD/Fs)(Frazzoli et al, 2010).

Electronic waste effects human health through the food chain, wherein contamination by obnoxious elements from improper dumping and conventional recycling methods releases byproducts that find their way into the food chain and thus get transferred to humans putting their lives in danger.

Another way is by direct occupational and hazardous exposure to harmful substances, are those who work in the recycling units. The peril of electronic waste toxicity to human well-being, both in terms of inveterate and critical conditions, has become a major societal concern and has been well confirmed by empirical investigations in China (Xing et al., 2009)and India (Eguchi et al., 2012).

People who suffer from direct exposure by recycling of e-waste have toxic substances found in their blood, serum, hair and human milk.

As per the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) around 90% of electronic waste is being illegally traded. Illegal dumping is resulting in the emission of the toxic substances that are causing harmful impacts not only on the human well-being but also on flora and fauna (Van & Huisman, 2010).

Because of the crude recycling methods, several pollutants, like incessant organic contaminants and heavy metals, are discharged from electronic trash, that can easily concentrate inside the human body by means of inhaling the poisonous air. The poisonous gases and fumes released from burning, incineration and disposal cause inflammation and extreme oxidative stress that can lead to DNA impairment, increase in blood pressure, oncogenesis and even cancer.

E-waste causes negative impact on almost all organs of the human body.

Polyvinyl Chloride present in e-waste comes through a plastic source and is extremely toxic. These toxins have an adverse effect on humans and negative impacts include heart damage, kidney failure, liver dysfunction, brain damage, birth defects, and skeletal system damage. These toxins also alter the nervous system, cardiovascular system, and the reproductive system.

The growing amounts of electronic waste in the third world nations, thus constitutes a tremendous risk to our environmental systems and at the same time a huge potential to create livelihood and business for the downtrodden and the disadvantaged people, provided the e-waste is managed and disposed sustainably and according to accepted and good practices and the global standards.

Improper disposal, recycling and treatment processes of electronic waste, emits poisonous gases that cause a negative impact on the environment, workers and the local inhabitants especially the women and the small children. Although the international community has taken many initiatives for reducing the human exposure form the POPs in the electronic waste, for e.g. the Stockholm Convention (UNEP, 2012) that aims to eliminate the use of Persistent organic pollutants POPs, there has been a pronounced delay with the enactment of guidance and legislation in some nations.

Also, while the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was initiated on 22nd March, 1989 and implemented on 5th March, 1992, America is one of the largest generators of electronic scrap, has not given the formal consent to the Basel Ban Amendment. International stakeholders are still arguing over the gaps, which allow the transport of whole products to other nations provided that is not meant for recycling (Kelemen & Vogel, 2010).

With today’s continually evolving advanced technology, e-waste is a common occurrence in the workplace. In order to prevent this, the organizations can follow RRR – reduce, reuse, recycle and reevaluate strategy.

8 Tips to Reduce Electronic Waste at Your Workplace

  • Stem the Spread

It is always good to upgrade your software and hardware before considering to buy a new desktop, laptop or other devices. This suggestion comes from the international agency named Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many devices (laptops and computers) have performance and memory augmenting attributes added to them. There are certain ways to upgrade your existing software and hardware. Delete or zip information like this can free up hard drive space. Also, it is recommended to store information to the cloud, an external storage or flash drive. There are many easy-to-follow videos available online that help troubleshoot issues with the electronic appliances. This prevents you from having to discard them and add to the poisonous e-waste (Kush & Arora, 2013).

  • Buy energy efficient appliances

Before purchasing, ensure that your equipment’s including your laptops, mobile devices, printers, monitors and computers are energy efficient. Investing in eco-friendly electronics have interdependent advantages. A high Energy Star rated device utilizes less energy and reduces the electricity bill. Energy efficient appliances reduce the exploitation of natural resources and enhance environmental conservation of these sources as a pathway to achieve sustainable development. At the same time, the use of energy efficient appliances is important in controlling pollution and e-waste generation.  When making a purchase, look for Energy Star Logo on the electronics and appliances (Rathi & Niyogi, 2015).

  • Donate old electronics

Another method of managing e-waste is to simply sell your equipment’s if they are in working and good condition.  There are also recycling and comparison websites that evaluate a reasonable price for your used gadgets and help you to send them off, for repurposing and recycling effectively. If you make the decision of donating the old office electronics, it is important to clear any information (like any data in the hard drive of the desktop, laptop or printer) (Kahhat et al, 2008).

  • Learn to Repair Broken Electronics at Home

Some brands of electronic devices last for only a few years. Apart from maintenance of the electronic items by regular cleaning, it is important to learn fixing hardware issues on the devices in order to ensure that these last for long. Several online websites offer free tips to fix common problems in different devices, along with images of the electronic items and of the needed tools for each repair job. Even YouTube videos are available which serve as a guide to fix a broken electronic device like a laptop or a mobile device. On many occasions, all it takes is a little bit of time and patience to make your gadget back into a working condition. Learning and gaining knowledge about repairing the electronics at a workplace avoids hiring a professional and paying heaps of money for other people to fix your electronic item. This way, you continue to use your electronic stuff for longer without having to throw it away.

  • Buy Refurbished and leased items

Refurbished products are those that have been taken back by the vendor and evaluated to make sure they still work. When you purchase refurbished, you contribute to waste reduction and money saving. Natural resources can also be saved by leasing. When you don’t need a laptop, a mobile device or a desktop, pass it on to someone else for their use.

  • Recycle your electronic waste

Electronic waste like mobile devices, desktops, printers, scanners, copiers, and other equipment can be recycled. Look for companies that recycle and even buy your old mobile devices and, although not a huge sum of money. Recycling companies offer a guarantee that those materials are properly recycled or/repurposed. It is interesting to know that 92% of your mobile devices can be used to manufacture new equipment’s (Alam et al, 2018).

  • Educate yourself on the materials used in electronics

Educate yourself and organization of the raw materials your gadgets are made of. The more you are aware, the more you are able to buy products that are less harmful to the environment in the long term. Being mindful of e-waste can minimize the environment and the planet as a whole.

  • Buy recycled toner and ink at your workplace

Ink cartridges contribute to toxic metals and poisonous plastics to the landfills, but purchasing toner and ink that is recycled and refilled can help reduce this environmental burden. This strategy can save costs and also help to reduce landfill waste (Kumar & Holuszko, 2016).

Conclusion

E-waste is a huge menace and poses a serious health hazard if not managed and disposed of in an appropriate way. Most of the natural resources are not renewable. However, the process of recycling helps to separate useful and valuable components and allows them to recover. This helps in the production of new products by utilizing reused and recycled components. Recycling e-waste minimizes pollution and conserves the resources and also saves energy.


Dr Amita F.

Dr Amita F. – Technical Research/Academic Consultant and Writer

 

References

 

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Tiwari, D., & Dhawan, N. G. (2014). E-waste management: An emerging challenge to manage and recover valuable resources. International Journal of Environmental Research and Development4(3), 253-60. Retrieved on November 4, 2018, from                            https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5be3/b9050a5d21ee0a9a0fd5807d08af9633b599.pdf

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Van Erp, J., & Huisman, W. (2010). Smart regulation and enforcement of illegal disposal of electronic waste. Criminology & Public Policy9(3), 579-590. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9133.2010.00652.x

Xing, G. H., Chan, J. K. Y., Leung, A. O. W., Wu, S. C., & Wong, M. H. (2009). Environmental impact and human exposure to PCBs in Guiyu, an electronic waste recycling site in China. Environment International35(1), 76-82. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2008.07.025

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