What is e-waste?
Electronic waste (commonly called e-waste) is a term for any electronic products that have been discarded before or at the end of their lifespan.
E-waste can be anything and everything from your updated TV or that brick of a mobile phone, to an IT server. Washing machines, printers and even heart defibrillators make the cut. Basically anything with cables is considered ‘recyclable’.
The average US citizen will ‘consume’ up to 17 Televisions, 20 laptops and over 40 smartphones in their lifetime – a small mountain of plastic and silicone trash.
With companies churning out new and updated products, many discarded products are still in working condition, and are simply disposed of because a newer model has been purchased. See iPhone 6,7 & 8.
The world of e-waste
This is part of what is called ‘Global Waste Trade’, or the selling of waste items by developed countries to developing countries. The receiving countries often do not have access to the same processing and disposal resources to safely manage this waste.
It’s estimated that the USA accounts for 20% of global e-waste. Much of this is exported to developing countries in the Global South. These include Ghana, Pakistan and Indonesia.
The Basel Action Network found that 40% of e-waste from the USA were exported to developing countries. The USA has no laws forbidding exports.
China used to accept a huge amount of this waste, around 70% of global e-waste. However in 2018 they ceased this practice. Now, much of it is dumped in countries that cannot properly process and sort these materials.
The scavenge is real
A lot of quality materials remain in these tech gadgets like gold, silver and copper. Of course the trouble is getting them out of the tightly wound cables and plastic insides.
Melting the plastic and rubber off copper wires is one of the ways often used in these hellish tech graveyards. Burns and cuts aside, the black smoke and toxic fumes get so bad that respiratory diseases are commonplace.
In fact that The Guardian reported in 2014 most workers in Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana, tragically die from cancer in their 20’s.
“Everywhere you look you see pieces of circuit boards, televisions, refrigerators, irons, etc. The toxic chemicals released are spread throughout the area when it rains and of course spread to the homes each evening. What especially troubled me was the path of the toxic smoke that floats right into the food market. So whatever doesn’t get into your lungs can now settle onto the food supply of Accra.”
A heavy toll for a tiny income
E-waste often contains heavy metals and chemicals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and flame retardants.
Over time, these chemicals and heavy metals leach into water systems affecting local animals, plants and people.
And, unfortunately for the environment, e-waste contains a high amount of non-renewable resources including plastics and precious metals.
At the Bantar Gebang dump in Bekasi, Indonesia up to 3,000 families search through piles of trash. Children as young as 5 search through landfill for materials like copper. It’s known locally as “The Kingdom” referring to the endless rolling hills of trash.
Why is recycling e-waste important?
There is a proven solution that prevents e-waste from ending up in landfill. That solution is e-waste recycling.
If you throw away your electronic waste into the trash, it will end up in landfill. Yet, according to Clean Up Australia, 98% of the parts from your computer or TV can be fully recycled.
Recycling e-waste protects human and environmental health by keeping these products and their toxins out of landfill.
And, recycling these items allows their materials to be reused for other purposes, reducing the need to mine for virgin (new) base materials.
Where does properly recycled e-waste end up?
Let’s take the example of Australia’s TechCollect. TechCollect states that e-waste collected at their sites is sent to their approved recycling partner network within Australia.
These partners commit to the following:
- “ensure at least 90% of all materials recovered from the e-waste we collect and recycle are reintroduced as raw materials in the manufacture of new products
- operate to sound environmental and workplace health and safety standards
- undergo Independent Certification to ISO 14001 – the international benchmark for environmental management
- are certified to AS/NZS 5377: 2013 Collection, storage, transport and treatment of end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment.”
According to their website, their process involves:
- Sorting and dismantling devices into parts and materials which are then sent to processing facilities (nationally and globally). TechCollect states that they have a tracking process to ensure the e-waste is not illegally exported and only goes to approved facilities (Asia).
- Separated items are processed into new products (where possible within Australia).
- New products are manufactured from the processed e-waste.
- Lobbying around circular economies and transparent processes.
How much e-waste actually gets recycled?
According to The World Counts, we are only recycling 12.5% of total e-waste, and the rest is still ending up in landfills or incinerators (burning e-waste releases toxins into the air).
Yet, when we think about just how much e-waste can actually be reused and recycled (remember that 98% of your computer or TV can be recycled), e-waste becomes a vastly preferable option for the environment.
How to responsibly recycle your e-waste
The Basel Action Network (BAN) created the ‘e-Stewards Certification’ in 2009. The e-Stewards initiative defines and promotes responsible electronics reuse and recycling best practices worldwide.
On their website, you can find a global list of all certified recyclers that are part of the network. The list also notes if some recyclers participate in the ‘Take Back Program’ where manufacturers take products back at the end of life. Printer cartridges can be refilled easily, and glass and aluminium composites can be easily recycled into new products.
Around 25 US States have passed legislation to reduce illegal dumping of e-waste, as well as providing convenient opportunities to properly manage unwanted electronics.
California was the first to do so, and in 2003 established a funding system for the collection and recycling of certain electronic wastes.
As with everything, it’s best to consume less. If you can repair and reuse, even better.
We recommend trying finding a new home for your electronics, or donate them to schools or nonprofits. If you’ve got to ditch your products, make sure you use an e-Steward certified recycling company.