What Happens to Our E-waste?

What Happens to Our E-waste?

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Have you ever thought of what happens to your computer, TV or cellphone once you get rid of them? Despite the effort from non-profit organizations and various national governments to encourage recycling and re-using of electronic products, much of the waste generated from electronic equipment and devices get send off to developing countries such as Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and China

According to Greenpeace, less than 20% of the e-waste created in the U.S. is not recycled, and of all the PCs and TVs that being thrown out, only 10% and 14% are being recycled respectively. In 2010, it was recorded that over 1,300 metric tonnes of e-waste was collected monthly from 97 depots in British Columbia. Additionally, approximately 70-80% of the e-waste was television, as many traditional cathode-ray tube televisions were, and still are being replaced.

And with the constant rollouts of various technological devices and the decline in prices, the life-span of technology products has become very short. Below are the life-spans of different electronic products:

  • Cellphones – Replaced every 22 months.
  • Desktop computer – Replaced every 2 years.
  • Television – Replaced every 10+ years.
  • Portable music player – Replaced every 2 to 3 years.
  • DVD player - Replaced every 4 to 5 years.
  • Printer – Replaced ever 5+ years.

With this being said, an average American spends roughly $1400 per year on electronic devices. Additionally, in 2009, 33.8 million flat-panel sets were shipped in the U.S while Samsung Electronics Co.’s sales of LCD televisions reached almost 10 million last year.

This massive purchase of new televisions has ultimately replaced cathode-ray tube televisions, the big old chunky televisions that most of us grew up watching. So what happens when all these old electronic junk gets shipped to developing countries?

Well first of all, all these discarded computers, monitors and televisions will end up in landfills, which may result in leakage of lead, mercury, arsenic cadmium, beryllium and other toxic chemicals into the Earth. Despite of the harmful effects of shipping obsolete products to developing countries, selling these products is very profitable as they contain valuable raw materials that may be worth a lot of money.

For instance, Exporting Harm, a documentary focused on the city of Guiyu in Guangdong Province, China, showed thousands of individuals, from young to old, engaging in harmful and dangerous work such as burning computer wire to expose copper, melting circuit boards in pots to extract lead and other metals, or dousing the boards in powerful acid to remove gold. In addition, workers would extract copper from microchips and computer motherboards, as well as metal from circuit board. Our e-waste has translated into wealth for e-waste buyers and exporters, as they take advantage of the high unemployment rates and poverty in various developing countries. These “business” owners pay workers, adults and children, a mere $1.50 a day (or 17 cents an hour). In contrast, an e-waste “entrepreneur” can make over $12,000 annually through exploiting these adult and child workers.

Although many believe that dumping e-waste in developing countries such as India and China can create employment opportunities, the distribution of wealth is clearly very uneven. More importantly, the health risks and deaths caused by working with e-waste are overwhelming, these illnesses include skin cancer, kidney and liver damage, lung damage and cancer just to name a few.

The reason why it is so difficult to recycle e-waste is because electronic goods maybe manufactured in various sizes, models and in their materials and components. The amount of material in PC that can be re-used or recycled simply depends on the brand and manufacturer itself, which makes automated recycling fairly difficult. As a result, manual disassembly is presently the most efficient and cost-effective method. In my opinion, the best approach to minimize e-waste is not by recycling, but by reducing our consumption of electronic devices. According to Basel Action Network, 80 per cent of private recyclers in North America export e-waste to developing nations. It is important then, as consumers, that we understand the consequences every time we purchase new devices and throw out our old ones.

The next time when we buy the newest smartphones or laptops, we should really consider whether it is necessary. And if we really need to buy a new electronic to replace the old, there are several alternatives for recycling or re-using your waste. You could give it to charities, families and friends, schools in developing or developed countries or to green projects such as the Hope Phones, where mobile phones deliver support to people in Malawi. These are certainly good uses of old electronic products and I hope students at SFU can take a positive approach at eliminating e-waste across the world.

Posted on January 19, 2012