The Digital Dump

What is e-waste?

Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream across the globe. E-waste consists of anything electrical: from electric toothbrushes and mobile phones, to freezers and medical equipment. Technology has boomed in the past few decades, and nowadays it seems nearly impossible to live without. The issues that surround this growing dependency on electronics are extensive. One of the main problems is sustainability. Due to the advancements in technology, it seems each year there is something newer and better that everyone wants to get their hands on. The detrimental effect of this advancement is that we upgrade our devices regularly, yet we rarely do anything with the devices we leave behind.

landfill, child, waste, litter

In February of 2003, the European Parliament launched the WEEE (Waste Electronics and Electrical Equipment) directive; a legal agreement to adhere to guidelines on how electrical waste is treated. The law sets regulations on the proper disposal of electronic devices so that this waste doesn’t cause damage to the environment.

E-waste contains many hazardous chemicals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, barium and chromium. Contained inside your device, these chemicals don’t pose a threat. However, if left to rot in landfill sites, these elements can seep into the soil and cause a range of problems for the planet and its’ inhabitants.

WEEE in the UK

The UK is one of the world’s largest producers of E-waste; ranking 5th in terms of material discarded per person (with each individual generating 23.5kg every year – the equivalent of 34 iPads).

television, broken, rubbish

Overall, as a country we discard 1.5 megatons of E-waste yearly; which is only 100,000 tonnes less than India (whom have 20 times the population).

The reason behind this, is mainly due to the overall wealth of the country. Western societies utilize technology much more than the less developed areas around the globe because they have the money to do so. Although the West is creating the majority of E-waste, 23% of it ends up in developing nations such as Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, China and Vietnam.

The Basel convention is an international treaty agreed by many developed countries. The agreement aims to significantly reduce the amount of hazardous waste being sent to less developed countries.

However, because disposing of E-waste responsibly is inevitably more costly for organisations (as they have to pay for specialists to collect, dismantle and dispose of their equipment), many companies have found loopholes in the law.

e-waste, landfill, poor country, digital dump

Technology advancements are turning impoverished areas into e-wastelands…

IT equipment that can be reused and therefore sold to make profit, are legal to send to poorer areas. The problem is, many organisations claim that what they are sending can be reused, but in fact it cannot. A vast majority of tech that gets sent to these countries is not in working order, and so its’ only worth is in the precious materials encased within.

Electrical items often contain precious materials such as copper, silver, and gold which are in short supply and dangerous to mine. By recovering these elements, the people working in these ‘e-wastelands’ expose themselves to dangerous fumes that cause them various illnesses and ailments.

Residents working in or around the landfill sites suffer from: decreased lung function, skin conditions, gastric diseases, liver damage, chest pains, headaches, coughing up blood, cancer, distorted blood composition and birth defects.

technician, motherboard, mobile phone, chip

It is fairly common for children to work on landfill sites scavenging precious metals. In Bangladesh, more than 83% of child workers are exposed to toxic fumes resulting in over 15% of them dying each year. The additional health risks for children working on these sites are: lung damage, reduced IQ, attention deficits, DNA damage and death.

These communities suffer the consequences of our consumer culture because it provides them with products for trade. Although our discarded technology provides an income for impoverished individuals, their lack of education and safety equipment puts them in harm’s way.

The environmental impact of e-waste in developing countries

Along with the damage caused to people working on the landfill sites, e-waste is polluting our delicate eco-system. Without following proper procedures, hazardous chemicals seep out of IT devices; into the soil and local water supplies. Nearby villagers inevitably struggle to grow crops due to the contaminated ground.

In a landfill site located in Guiyu, China, scientists’ tested soil samples and discovered that they contained a record-breaking number of dioxins and heavy metals. They also tested the water in this area and found it held lead 2400 times higher than safe consumable levels.

Workers frequently wash the items they can sell and throw the dirty water into drains; poisoning the local water supply. Plus, the fumes from burning the unwanted equipment are absorbed into the atmosphere; many of these components are environmentally persistent – meaning once released into the atmosphere, it will remain there for a long time. By teaching these communities safe methods of recycling e-waste, we would help to reduce the negative affects produced from improper recovery techniques.

electrical waste, wires, cables, household rubbish

The first large-scale electronic recycling facility opened in Mombasa, Africa in 2011 with funding from HP. This marked the start of efficient and safe recycling of electrical items on the continent. The HP ‘Planet Partners Program’ has been launched in 57 countries worldwide and is doing integral work with the surrounding communities in maintaining a safe working environment. In doing so, HP have successfully responsibly recycled more than 2 billion pounds of electrical items.

What can we do to reduce electrical pollution overseas?

The best way we can prevent pollution from electronics is to reuse the equipment that we already have. By upgrading your IT, you extend its lifespan and prolong the need for a new device (which would create a lot of Co2 etc).

Secondly, research where your e-waste is going before handing it over to an organisation. Although many companies claim to be eco-friendly, they are actually sending the majority of their items to developing countries.

Finally, support those who work towards helping and educating the communities that work with e-waste; so that they can do so safely. As with most things, it’s highly important to raise awareness of this global issue if we are to reduce pollution and human suffering caused by electronic waste.

There are still a number of countries who are yet to sign the Basel convention treaty, so it is vital for the public to push leaders into doing so.

If you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint, speak to Green Machine about your IT needs. We can repair and upgrade your equipment, or provide you with a refurbished replacement. Visit our website to browse our range of products.

Want to responsibly recycle your electronic devices? Book a collection today or see where your nearest drop-off zone is.

Watch this short clip from the BBC reporting on e-waste in Ghana:

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