Where do our electronic devices go to die?

This post discusses electronic waste (e-waste), highlights some of the health and environmental effects, and suggests what we in the Caribbean should be doing to address this important issue.

Do you know what happens to your electronic devices – laptop, mobile phone, PC, TV, DVD player, etc. – when you no longer have any use for them? Usually they might languish in a corner for some time, or get a second life as a pre-loved item, or even get used for spare parts, but eventually they are put out with the garbage for disposal. In some countries discarded materials from electronic products can be recycled, but in the Caribbean, these devices eventually end up at a garbage dump or in a landfill.

The majority of electronic devices contain a number of chemicals that are toxic to humans and to the environment. Due to the proliferation of such appliances worldwide, there is a growing concern that they must be carefully disposed of to reduce waste and to safeguard our own health.

What is e-Waste?

Although there is no universally agreed definition, according to ewasteguide.info, electronic waste (e-waste), or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), generally speaks to

old, end-of-life or discarded appliances using electricity. It includes computers, consumer electronics, fridges etc which have been disposed of by their original users.

Some countries make a distinction between material that can be salvaged and recycled, and that which will not be used or repurposed, and ultimately will be dumped. Nevertheless, it must be highlighted that most developing countries, including those in the Caribbean, are not managing the waste derived from electrical and electronic products.

Key contaminants derived from e-waste

Electronic devices consist of a broad range of chemicals and materials, some of which are valuable and scarce and can be reused, and some which are highly toxic. Table 1 below, highlights some of the more toxic substances found in common electronic equipment, especially PCs, laptops and cellular phones.

Table 1:  Select hazardous chemicals found in common electronic devices, their uses and the effect on humans and the environment (Source: Wikipedia; Greenpeace)

It is important to note that the table only outlines some of the health and environmental effects that can result. In many instances, there must be chronic exposure in order for the worst symptoms to be realised. This can readily occur during the manufacturing, recycling and disposal processes, especially when poor practices are implemented, and when toxins from discarded equipment are inhaled or allowed to leach into the soil.

Some of the chemicals, such as the BFRs and hexavalent chromium, can build-up in the environment, eventually making land unusable for habitation and agriculture. Other chemicals can be harmful to babies and foetuses. In a recent Greenpeace paper, it noted that compounds found in BFRs are being recorded in higher concentrations in breast milk, and that

Methyl-mercury can readily pass through the placental barrier and the blood-brain barrier, and can have adverse effects on the developing brain and central nervous system in foetuses and children…

Critical issues associated with e-waste and e-waste management

There are a number of important issues associated with e-waste management that should be considered. A few are outlined in the paragraphs below.

Shorter disposal times for computing devices. Electronic equipment is developing quickly. Often it is more cost effective to dispose of a device and purchase a new one, rather than have it repaired. According to Greenpeace,

  • The average lifespan of computers in developed countries has dropped from six years in 1997 to just two years in 2005.
  • Mobile phones have a lifecycle of less than two years in developed countries.

With regard to smartphones, in particular, their life span could be less than a year.

Increased sales means increased waste. According to IDC, 346 million PCs and 302.6 million smartphones were sold worldwide in 2010. Much of this growth is due to increased take-up in developing countries, especially China and India. It therefore means that comprehensive and coherent systems must be established to manage electronic waste products. A 2010 report by the United Nations Environment Programme predicted that

by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 500 per cent from 2007 levels in India, and by 200 to 400 per cent in South Africa and China, while that from old mobile phones will be 7 times higher in China and 18 times higher in India.

Developing countries need to manage their e-waste. Developed countries, to varying degrees, are processing their discarded electronic products. Most developing countries are yet to establish the necessary systems and processes to manage their own e-waste. Further, there is also the situation where firms in developed countries, under the guise of recyclers, export this waste to parts of Asia and Africa, where it is cheaper to process and unsafe practices are the norm.

What can we do in the Caribbean?

Moving forward, it is important that we, in the Caribbean, become more aware of the harmful effects to our health and environment resulting from poor disposal of e-waste. In some countries, where the scrap metal trade is well established, it is likely that unsafe practices are being implemented to extract valuable materials from electronic devices, which ultimately could be putting not only those directly involved in the extraction process, but the society at large, at risk. It is therefore critical that countries establish clear rules and structures for e-waste management, and provide support to those involved in the recycling industry.

Extraction and recycling of electronic waste can be particularly lucrative, but it is crucial that safe processing techniques are used. Many of the toxins derived from electronic equipment produce a broad range of long-term health and environmental problems. Hence the Caribbean should be more actively adopting greener and environmentally sustainable practices, especially when our growing populations and the importance of our tourism industry are considered.