E-waste management

Electronic or e-waste describes loosely discarded, surplus, used, obsolete, or broken electrical or electronic devices and consist of products that are discarded by the consumers including computers, monitors, peripherals, laptops, printers, audio and stereo equipment, VCRs and DVD players, video cameras, telephones, cellular phones, pagers, digital photo and other wireless devices, fax and copy machines, video game, refrigerators and toys etc.

In recent years, advances in consumer electronics have spurred economic growth. The progress in information technology has improved people lives in countless ways enhancing more dependence on electronic products both at home and in the workplace. The use of electronic products especially computers and mobile phones has grown substantially over the past two decades, changing the way and the speed in which we communicate and how we get information and entertainment. This phenomenon has given rise to a new environmental hazard in the form of generation of e-waste.

Electronic waste is an epidemic growing at an astronomical three times the rate of municipal waste and makes up to 3% of the known waste stream. In addition, it is estimated that nearly 75% of old electronics are still in storage, because of the uncertainty of how to manage the materials consuming space and becoming more obsolete and less valuable with time.

According to the UNEP, the worldwide total for e-waste generation could be 50 million tons per year. USA alone generates around 3 million tons of e-waste per year or around 400 million electronic items per year, while China produces about 2.3 million tons.

Modern electronics contain up to 60 different elements. Electronic items that are considered to be hazardous include TV (LCD & Plasma) and computer monitors that contain cathode ray tubes, LCD desktop monitors, Laptop computers with LCD displays, Portable DVD players with LCD screens etc.

Toxic chemicals in electronics products can leach into the land over time or are released into the atmosphere, impacting nearby communities and the environment. When the electronic components are illegally disposed and crushed in landfills, the lead is released into the environment. Computer or television displays (CRTs) contain an average of 6 pounds of lead each. Lead is the primary substance of concern because the analog TVs are fast being replaced by digital TVs.

Lead is very toxic to humans, especially children and can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood system and kidneys in humans. Lead accumulates in the environment, and has highly acute and chronic toxic effects on plants, animals and microorganisms. Other hazardous materials used in computers and other electronic devices include cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, PVC plastic and brominated flame retardant. Studies have proved that the heavy metals in a mobile phone are capable of contaminating 600,000 liters of water.

The developing countries are now facing a serious challenge with rising environmental damage and health problems due to e-waste dumping and recycling which is often left to the vagaries of the informal sector. In addition to curbing health problems, boosting e-waste recycling rates have the potential to generate decent employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions and recover a wide range of valuable metals including silver, gold, palladium, copper and indium. If we recycle one million mobile phones, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions equal to taking 1,368 cars off the road for a year.

Source reduction is the least expensive and most effective way to manage e-waste. It is recommended that electronics are to be used and re-used till the life span of the device, after which it can eventually be recycled. The re-use can postpone the early recycling, leading to optimum value gained from device use. Reducing the generation of e-waste through smart procurement, green buying and good maintenance are other valuable options. The electronic equipment still functioning can be donated to schools, non-profit welfare organizations and lower income families or can be sold in open market to other vendors.

It is suggested that we establish e-waste management centers of excellence, building on existing organizations working in the area of recycling and waste management. If properly managed, e-waste represented a business opportunity. However, the e-waste should be managed with caution considering the environmental dangers.