What is the big deal about e-waste?

A discussion on electronic waste (e-waste): its importance; projects that are being launched in the Caribbean; and the potential lucrativeness of the industry.

e-cycling (U.S. Army Environmental Command, flickr)Did you know that: –

  • 80—85% of electronic products were discarded in landfills or incinerators, which can release certain toxics into the air?
  • 20—50 million metric tonnes of e-waste are disposed worldwide every year?
  • For every 1 million cell phones that are recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered?
  • A large number of what is labelled as “e-waste” is actually not waste at all, but rather whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for materials recovery?
  • It takes 539 pounds of fossil fuel, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to manufacture one computer and monitor? (Source: DoSomething.org)

New e-waste initiative coming to the Caribbean

Earlier this month, E-Waste Systems Inc. (EWSI), a United States-based electronic waste management services company, issued a press release announcing its first recycling project for the Caribbean:

“This Caribbean launch venture is designed to remove electronics from landfills across the islands for processing in Ohio. The first containers are to begin flowing in the 3rd Quarter of 2013. The local municipalities will supply containers at the site. This venture will provide local governments with revenue sharing,” said Mr. Martin Nielson, Founder and CEO of E-Waste Systems, Inc.

The project will start in Jamaica, but it is expected to include most Caribbean islands in the short- to medium-term. EWSI already has an extensive network for the collection of e-waste across the United States, and has established arrangements in the United Kingdom, China, Australia, Mexico and India (Source: EWSI).

E-waste: What is it? Why is there such concern?

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.

The press release also highlighted that fact that in the Caribbean, electronic equipment is frequently disposed of in landfills and dumps. In most, if not all CARICOM countries, there is not yet any clear policy regarding the safe disposal of electrical and electronic waste. Many of our countries have not embraced measures to promote recycling and greener practices, of which e-waste would be a subset.

Additionally, as was discussed in one of earlier posts, Where do our electronic devices go to die?, electrical and electronic devices contain a several toxic chemicals that are harmful to the environment, and to human and animal health. Table 1 below summarises the health and environmental effects of key chemicals used in the manufacture of electronic equipment.

Table 1: Uses and effects of select hazardous chemicals found in common electronic devices (Source: Wikipedia; Greenpeace)
Table 1: Uses and effects of select hazardous chemicals found in common electronic devices (Source: Wikipedia; Greenpeace)

Bearing in mind the types of hazardous chemicals found in common electronic devices, it must be highlighted that the volume of electronic waste that the world produces is likely to continue to increase well into the foreseeable future, thanks to the continued growth and proliferation of electrical and electronic devices worldwide. As a result, we, as global citizens, ought to be prepared to implement more responsible measures to facilitate proper disposal of those devices and their hazardous waste, in order to safeguard our own health and that of the planet.

Some additional considerations

According to Transparency Market Research, in 2012, the global e-waste recycling and reuse services market was approximately USD 9.8 billion. However, by 2017, it should double to USD 18.3 billion in 2017. Additionally,

… global revenue generated through recycling/reuse of e-waste components such as metals, plastics, silica and others will reach USD 13,856.6 million in 2012. This will further reach USD 25,192.8 million in 2017 at a CAGR of 12.7% during the forecast period.

Hence, this increasing demand for e-waste processing and e-waste management services can be exceedingly lucrative industries for those who are prepared to invest. In the case of EWSI, and based on its press release, the company is prepared to ship discarded electronic equipment collected in the Caribbean to the United States to be processed rather that build a processing plant in individual countries, or somewhere in the region. Although there would be clear benefits realised from processing waste in an existing plant, even with the shipping and transportation costs to Ohio, it appears that EWSI’s Caribbean venture is still viable, and perhaps even profitable for the company.

Finally, and on an aside, but recognising the ‘cottage industries’ that have emerged in the Caribbean around the scrap metal, and even the cash-for gold trades, there is an inherent concern regarding the extent to which persons might be prepared to steal still-functioning devices to sell as e-waste. Several countries across the region have had experiences of lengths of metal pipes, telecoms cables, manhole covers, etc., being stolen and sold as scrap metal. Hence whether this will occur with respect o e-waste could boil down to the extent to which, still-functioning devices are considered more valuable to resell for use (to others), or as e-waste.


Image credit:  U.S. Army Environmental Command (flickr)