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What is e-waste and what can we do to fix the problem

What is e-waste?

Electronic and electrical waste, or e-waste, covers a variety of different products that are thrown away after use. Large household appliances, such as washing machines and electric stoves, are the most collected, making up more than half of all collected e-waste.

This is followed by IT and telecommunications equipment (laptops, printers), consumer equipment and photovoltaic panels (video cameras, fluorescent lamps) and small household appliances (vacuum cleaners, toasters).

All other categories, such as electrical tools and medical devices, together make up just 7.2% of the collected e-waste.

Is “e-waste” clearly defined?
The term “e-waste” is loosely applied to consumer and business electronic equipment that is near or at the end of its useful life. There is no clear definition for e-waste; for instance whether or not items like microwave ovens and other similar “appliances” should be grouped into the category has not been established.

Is “e-waste” considered hazardous?
Certain components of some electronic products contain materials that render them hazardous, depending on their condition and density. For instance, California law currently views nonfunctioning cathode ray tubes (CRT) from televisions and monitors as hazardous.

What should I do with my electronic discards?
The mantra of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” applies here.

  • Reduce your generation of e-waste through smart procurement and good maintenance.
  • Reuse still functioning electronic equipment by donating or selling it to someone who can still use it.
  • Recycle those products that cannot be repaired. Computer monitors, televisions and other electronic equipment should NOT be disposed of with regular garbage, as this is illegal in many places. Find your local organization that will manage your electronics for recycling.

How Can We Fix The Massive E-Waste Problem?

Challenges

E-waste is referred to as almost any discarded household or business item with circuitry or electrical components with a power or batt​ery supply.

Matching growth in ICT networks and services, latest estimates show that the world now discards approximately 53.6 million Mt of e-waste per year – only 17.4% is formally collected and recycled. In 2019, the fate of 44.3 Mt of generated e-waste was unknown – this waste was either not documented, being discarded in landfill, burned or illegally traded and treated in a sub-standard way. With the current approach to end-of-life management of e-waste, globally, a transition to a circular economy for ICT equipment in particular, is proving challenging.

Up to 69 elements from the periodic table can be found in electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). These include critical raw materials and precious metals. E-waste can result in the unnecessary loss of scarce and valuable natural materials, through failure to recycle other less toxic, but high-value rare materials, such as gold, platinum, and cobalt, putting pressure on the limited natural resources available.

For example, one ton of discarded mobile phones or PCs can contain up to 280 grams of gold, as well as high levels of base metals. E-waste contains toxic additives or hazardous substances, commonly including heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead, and chemicals such as brominated flame retardants which can pollute land, air and aquatic environments and pose significant health risks, especially if treated inadequately.

Improper e-waste management can also contribute to global warming, especially since refrigerants in some temperature exchange equipment are potent greenhouse gases. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents were potentially released into the atmosphere globally in 2019 from the discarded fridges and air conditioners that were not managed in an environmentally sound manner. More and more products such as smart fridges, freezers and smart washing machines are increasing their connectivity capabilities, in the growing Internet of Things (IoT). Furthermore, products that were not traditionally electrified may often now incorporate circuitry, including wearable electronics.

In addition, e-waste puts the health and lives of some of the world’s poorest adult and child workers who dispose of e-waste at risk, by exposing them to toxins and poisoning. ​

Opportunities

On the upside, e-waste contains several valuable raw materials such as gold, copper and iron. In 2019, the value of raw materials in e-waste generated was estimated at $57 billion USD.  At the current collection and recycling rate (17.4%), a raw material value of $10 billion USD could be recovered. Under the right conditions, with due health and safety precautions, e-waste recycling and refurbishment activities could also potentially create green jobs worldwide.

Through greater collaboration, multinationals, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), entrepreneurs, academia, trade unions, civil society and associations could create a ‘circular economy’ for electronics where the waste is designed out, the environmental impact could be reduced and decent work created for millions.

A system in which all discarded products are collected and then the materials or components reintegrated into new products could:

  • ​reduce the need for new raw materials, waste disposal and energy;
  • create new economic growth, ‘green’ jobs, and business opportunities; and
  • substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions, compared to raw resource extraction through mining or industrial extraction.

At the industry level, companies can research and establish their full supply chain, from sourcing to manufacture to distribution, to collection and disposal. Supply chain management must include responsible and ethical device disposal, as well as educating consumers about the importance of disposing of their devices responsibly.

Consumers can try to: get ICT equipment repaired instead of replaced; delay upgrading or exchanging functional smartphones for the latest model; use certified recycling points or disposal firms; consider giving ICT equipment a ‘second life’ through resale.

Reliable, official and comparable e-waste data and statistics provide the foundation for the development of sound domestic e-waste management policies and legislation. As of 2020, people from 60 different countries have been trained by the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) to compile national e-waste statistics through an internationally adopted methodology. However, between 2017 and 2019, about 9 countries (other than EU) have officially started collecting e-waste data and estimations.

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