E-waste provides income to the poor but is also an environmental hazard
Electronic waste refers to computers, mobile phones and other devices after users have thrown them away.
E-waste is a relatively new but controversial global challenge. To some, e-waste is an environmental evil to be battled, but to others it is an opportunity to make money.
Let's take a closer look at what makes e-waste special, its dangers and benefits, how countries are managing it and how the world might do better.
Ownership of electronics has grown explosively, not just in rich countries, but all over the world. This increased ownership, combined with rapid rollouts of new models, leads to large amounts of e-waste.
There are three important characteristics of e-waste. First, in many cases, the "waste" still works just fine or can be easily repaired. The device has only become unwanted by its first owner.
E-waste Contains Valuable Materials Like Copper And Gold
Moreover, electronic waste contains valuable materials such as copper in wires and gold in other parts that make it attractive for recycling. Finally, these materials are mixed in a complicated way with others, some of which are hazardous or can become hazardous when recycled.
These characteristics make the e-waste challenge unique.
Demand for used electronics is higher in developing countries. "Developing" is a term used to describe certain countries that are not as developed or rich as countries such as the United States or Japan. This demand and the high costs of repair and recycling in rich countries suggest that e-waste has more value in the developing world than in the U.S. This difference has led to a booming international trade in e-waste.
Much of the traded "waste" is repaired and resold in the destination countries, which provides many job opportunities. It also helps to bridge the "digital divide," the gap between those who have access to computers, cell phones and the Internet and those who don't.
Informal Recycling Industry Has No Rules
There are environmental and human costs, however, from the e-waste left over after repair. In some places, an informal recycling industry has emerged. This means that people make money recycling e-waste, but there are no rules about how they do it. Sometimes, informal recycling uses destructive processes to recover materials from scrap electronics.
For example, many electronics have copper wires covered with plastic. Some people will burn the plastic in order to recover the copper. When this is done in open areas, it can be harmful to the environment.
Gold in electronics can be recovered using powerful chemicals like cyanide and nitric acid. The leftover chemicals are often dumped, which can contaminate the water.
Images of informal recycling are often seen in the news. China and Nigeria tend to be showcased. Informal recycling is common in many places around the world, though.
Chinese Government Tried To Ban Informal Recycling
How has the world responded to the e-waste challenge? Consider China and Nigeria.
Informal recycling of electronics was introduced to the world in 2002 with reports on activities in the Chinese town of Guiyu. Beyond Guiyu, informal collection, repair and recycling of electronics are widespread in China.
The Chinese government responded by banning imports of e-waste and used electronics, as well as informal recycling.
The government also invested heavily in formal recycling programs to process e-waste. Unlike informal recycling, the formal programs have strict rules and regulations. It got people to participate by giving cash to consumers for turning in devices for formal recycling.
Despite these measures, informal recycling is apparently still common in China. One reason is that enforcement of bans is difficult and expensive. It is simply too difficult to get everyone to play by the rules.
More Money To Be Made With Informal Programs
A second reason is that it is hard for the formal recycling programs to compete with the informal ones. The main value from e-waste is its potential to be repaired and resold. People do not want to turn in their devices to the formal program if it is easy enough to ignore the rules and make more money.
Lagos, Nigeria is a known center for repair, resale and informal recycling of e-waste. The Nigerian government has passed laws that ban dumping of waste and the import of e-waste. Working used electronics can still be imported, though.
It is difficult to know how these laws have affected informal recycling and also repair and reuse of electronics.
There are three ways the world could do a better job of handling e-waste.
First, we should take a broader approach. Governments have treated e-waste as an environmental challenge that can be solved by making more rules, like bans on informal recycling.
Bans Are Not The Best Solution
The environmental harm of informal recycling is important, but bans are not the only way to solve the problem.
In addition to reducing environmental harm, it is also important to help people get jobs. We also need to bridge the digital divide. Workers in informal recycling, the most affected group, need to be consulted about solutions.
Second, we should find better ways to measure how much e-waste there really is. We don't know as much about e-waste as we could. This is because governments collect little useful information on it. Better information could make it easier to solve the problem.
New information could change the way we look at the problem.
Putting A Stop To E-waste Trade Won't Help Either
For example, forecasts of the global generation of e-waste indicate that soon more e-waste will actually come from the developing countries.
This means that stopping the trade in e-waste cannot solve the problem.
In the quest for better measurement, it is important to distinguish between true measures and speculation. Numerical "rumors" continue to influence the public conversation on e-waste, and this needs to change.
And finally, we should try new approaches. For example, it may be possible to combine informal and formal recycling while protecting the environment and employing people. This would allow us to get the most value from repairing and reselling electronics.
There are efforts under way measure and manage e-waste better, including the Solve the E-waste Problem (SteP) Initiative of the United Nations. More work and support are needed.
By combining a creative mind, a critical eye and a helping hand, there is a way to find solutions to e-waste that help people and the planet.
Eric Williams is associate professor at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He has done research on managing electronic waste.