Has the illegal e-waste industry reached crisis point?

Sensemaking / Has the illegal e-waste industry reached crisis point?

The e-waste industry is growing rapidly. How can it move from a severe health hazard to a source of lasting social value?

By Laura Picot / 30 Jun 2015

Up to 90 per cent of the world's electronic waste, worth nearly US $19 billion, is illegally traded or dumped each year, according to the UNEP. The e-waste industry is growing rapidly - predicted to increase by 9 million tonnes in three years to reach 50 million tonnes of annual waste by 2017. Europe and North America are currently the largest producers, although cities in Asia are fast catching up.

E-waste is categorised as hazardous due to the presence of toxic materials, such as mercury and lead, and may also contain precious metals and other rare materials which can be recovered and recycled. Although export of hazardous waste from the EU and OECD member states to non-OECD countries is banned, up to 1.3m tonnes of e-waste are shipped out of the EU alone every year. Much of this is falsely declared as second-hand goods and then smuggled to developing countries in Africa and Asia where they are either dumped in waste sites, such as Agbogbloshie in Ghana, or unsafely recycled. The main driver for this trafficking is profit from payment for supposedly safe disposal of e-waste that in reality is all but, according to the UNEP.

The system often involves large-scale organised crime, typically tax fraud and money laundering, which is widespread due to the lack of e-waste registering and inconsistency in regulations between import and export countries. Operators reclaiming metals and valuable materials from e-waste commonly disregard waste environmental legislation to maximise profits and expose workers to toxic chemicals when handling waste, frequently for little pay in very unhealthy conditions and without protective gear or social security. Resultant health problems include skin and respiratory diseases, birth defects, blood diseases and burns; children are especially vulnerable. These issues often spread into the surrounding population as heavy metals frequently leach into soil and water bodies and particulate matter is dissipated through burning.

UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNEP, Achim Steiner, said in a statement in May: "We are witnessing an unprecedented amount of electronic waste rolling out over the world. Not only does it account for a large portion of the world's non-recycled »waste mountain«, but it also poses a growing threat to human health and the environment, due to the hazardous elements it contains."

The problem is increasing with greater consumption of electronic goods, for example, the average mobile phone in the US is used for only 18 months. Furthermore, as electronic products are made smaller and lighter, they become increasingly difficult for recyclers to pull apart; unibody shells and non-standard parts further complicate disassembly. This drives up the cost of recycling and often means that it exceeds the revenues from recovered materials.

Recommendations to tackle the e-waste crisis include sustainable management, better governance and monitoring, a crack-down on e-waste trafficking and stricter waste classifications. Tighter regulations and higher prices of virgin materials would increase recycling and could provide an incentive for the urban mining of e-waste. Innovative solutions are also emerging, for example, e-waste parts are being used to make other goods such as this 3D printer, and modular smartphones could extend handset lifespan. Researchers at the University of Surrey have proposed using a cloud-based system to carry out mobile data processing and storage, in order to reduce the complexity of mobile phones so that they require less resources. Lead author Dr James Suckling also believes that a “take-back” clause in mobile contracts could encourage people to return old phones to manufacturers, combatting the estimated 85 million unused phones in the UK, many of which languish in consumers’ drawers before being thrown away.

Trend briefing by Laura Picot

Image credit: Fairphone / Flickr     

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