The Global Menace of E-waste: A General Overview

Annual e-waste production is estimated to exceed 74,000,000 tonnes in 2030 and is expected to weigh more than 203 Empire State buildings (Graham, 2020). It is alarming and there is a dire need to address the global menace of e-waste in light of the growing advancements in the field of science and technology.

What is e-waste?

E-waste includes the waste materials from any product with a power source such as a cable or battery which has reached its end of life. According to the International Labour Organisation’s report of 2012 (The Global Impact of E-Waste: Addressing the Challenge, n.d.), it was recorded as the largest growing waste stream that is harmful to the planet as well as those who call it home.

Eventhough there is not a standard definition for the term e-waste, the well-established one is “electrical or electronic equipment, which is waste … including all components, subassemblies, and consumables, which are part of the product at the time of discarding” (The Global Impact of E-Waste: Addressing the Challenge, n.d.) given by the European Commission. The lack of a universal definition leads to challenges around quantification, identification, and categorization of waste under electronic waste. This raises the need for a common definition at the international level. Nevertheless, e-waste in its ordinary sense needs attention in terms of management with the exponential rate of growth in the electrical and technical industry in the past few decades.

Problem statement

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) or e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). E-waste is made up of more than 1000 diverse materials of which some are hazardous and others non-hazardous. Materials like plastic, glass, wood, circuit boards, and rubber among others are used in building an electronic product, of which 50 percent is made of iron and steel, 21 percent from plastic, and 13 percent from other non-ferrous materials (copper, gold, palladium, tantalum, etc.) (ELWASTE VOLUME I, n.d.). These are extremely toxic and can impact both human health and the environment if improper management and recycling of e-waste are adopted. However, recycling is a profitable business and there are trade associations that work in the industry to recycle e-waste.

E-waste generated is often traded to developing countries as they are easy and cheap to recycle (Electronic Waste Facts, n.d.). Unfortunately, they are not recycled due to lack of infrastructure, financial constraints, and ineffective anti-dumping policies. They either end up in landfills or are burnt down which degrade the quality of the soil and the ecology. 

The world over

China is the largest producer of e-waste worldwide with over 10,000 metric tonnes followed by countries including the United States, India, Japan, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France (Tiseo, 2021). However, countries like China and India have a huge population and the per-capita generation is not as worrisome as the rest (Which Countries Produce the Most E-Waste? 2018). The per capita generation of e-waste is the highest in Europe with 16 kilograms per person while Africa has the lowest with 1.7 kilograms per person (Electronic Waste Facts, n.d.). With the expected increase in population, the distribution of e-waste will only increase further.

Regardless of the per-capita production of e-waste, safe recycling of e-waste is imperative to protect the environment and those dependent on the natural environment. As mentioned earlier, e-waste is a global problem and there is a strong linkage between the developed and developing worlds. According to the ILO, the transboundary mobilization of e-waste places the burden on developing countries with a lack of infrastructure to recycle the waste. This is primarily due to the cost of recycling being cheaper in developing countries. Meanwhile, the developed countries use the opportunity to avoid disposal responsibilities on the domestic front. This further raises the issue of equity and questions the disproportionate burden placed on developing countries to recycle as against each country taking account of their production of e-waste and the subsequent management of the same.

The United Nation’s Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste was one of the significant international initiatives to protect human health and the environment from the production, transboundary movement, and management of hazardous and toxic waste (Electronic Waste: A Growing Concern in Today’s Environment, n.d.). In addition, several national legislations also aim to address the same, the most well-known being the European Union’s directive on the use of certain substances in electrical equipment (RoHS) (Electronic Waste: A Growing Concern in Today’s Environment, n.d.), which provides the guidelines on the management of a few chemical substances used in the electrical devices. Despite these regulations, the supply chain does not fully come under the purview of the legislation and there is still a high flow of e-waste from countries like the US, Canada, Europe, Japan, and Korea to developing countries such as China, India, Pakistan, and several African countries.

Figure 1 gives a brief illustrative framework that countries can adopt to address the recycling of e-waste (Electronic Waste: A Growing Concern in Today’s Environment, n.d.).

Source: M. Khurrum S. Bhutta et. al. (2011)

References

Bhutta, M. S., Omar, A., & Yang, X. (2011). Electronic Waste: A Growing Concern in Today’s Environment. Economics Research International. https://doi.org/10.1155/2011/474230

Electronic Waste: A Growing Concern in Today’s Environment. (n.d.). Hindawi. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecri/2011/474230/

Electronic Waste Facts. (n.d.). The World Counts. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/planet-earth/waste/electronic-waste-facts/story

ELWASTE VOLUME I. (n.d.). greene.gov.in. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/7857/EWasteManual_Vol1.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y

The global impact of e-waste: addressing the challenge. (n.d.). Green Jobs. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_dialogue/@sector/documents/publication/wcms_196105.pdf

Graham, E. (2020, September 29). 10 Shocking facts from The Global E-waste Monitor – S2S News. S2S Electronics. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://s2s.uk.com/news/10-shocking-facts-from-the-global-e-waste-monitor/

Tiseo, I. (2021, March 4). • E-waste generation globally by key country 2019. Statista. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/499952/ewaste-generation-worldwide-by-major-country/ Which Countries Produce the Most E-Waste? (2018, June 25). Envirotech Online. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://www.envirotech-online.com/news/health-and-safety/10/breaking-news/which-countries-produce-the-most-e-waste/46470

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