The Aftermath of Electronic Waste

Note: Article adapted from here.

Our resources are finite and depleting. The clock is ticking on our wasteful ways, yet we seem to hold no regard or ponder for even a moment about the irrevocable consequences. Electronic waste is a toxic waste stream where a colossal amount of our scarce and valuable resources are lost.

Each year we generate 50 million metric tonnes of electronic waste. This alarming figure is only worsened by our growing dependence on technology and shorter product lifespans. Developing countries have also begun contributing more to this problem, given their rapid population growth coupled with decreasing prices of devices over the years. These factors have contributed to electronic waste becoming the fastest growing waste stream in the world. Our yearly electronic waste generated is set to increase significantly in the near future. An amount this large is difficult to handle in a responsible and sustainable manner. In 2016, only a mere 20% of electronic waste had been recycled worldwide. There have not been sufficient efforts made into building electronic waste facilities where the devices are processed safely. As a result the majority is sent to pile up in landfills or incinerated. Both alternatives create a substantial amount of pollution, and consequently cause ample damage to the health of the people and the environment. A sizeable portion of our electronic waste is also exported to developing countries as their laws are more relaxed. It is often that their officials turn a blind eye to how the waste is being handled, given the lack of effective legislation governing them on the matter. It is much more economical to export the electronic waste than to process it domestically, in developed countries, given the stringent regulations.

Out of sight, out of mind. However, the ignorance of where our discarded devices go, is not always bliss. Once arriving in the importing countries, the electronic waste poses weighty reverberations on the vulnerable local communities. Western Africa and parts of Asia are some of the more common dumping grounds. The local people earn their living through the extraction and selling of the rare and valuable metals present in the devices. Even children partake in this highly dangerous activity. They burn the waste manually or dissolve them in acid, with little to no protective equipment. This results in toxic pollutants entering the atmosphere and causing grievous ailments to the local populations. The pollutants are responsible for the deterioration of vital organs, entire organ systems and have also been found to be carcinogenic in nature. Toxic runoffs from landfills often contaminate the surrounding soil and water, destroying entire ecosystems and depleting their food supply. These hazardous substances can also spread to other continents, once they have infiltrated the air and the sea.

Aside from the immense irreparable harm the unsafe disposal of electronic waste has on our ecosystem, its current management also has a lasting impact on the economy. Our devices are composed of scarce valuable metal elements. In 2016, our electronic waste contained an estimated 55 billion euros worth of gold, silver, platinum and more. It is crucial that electronic waste is disposed of safely. A circular economy must become the norm. In this model, products are designed for the purpose of longer use and waste is eliminated. When the product has completed its period of useful life, its remnants are recycled and reused in the manufacturing process of new products.

There is in fact a sustainable solution by Clean Urban Mining, part of the Clean Earth Technologies group - preserving the health of the people and the environment for future generations. A better future is possible, we can make a difference.