THE E-WASTE TSUNAMI - RAISING AWARENESS AND UNDERSTANDING ECOSYSTEMS
Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) or E-waste is growing at an exponential rate due to the significant decrease in the cost of technology devices, shorter life-spans of these devices, and the increase in consumer spending power, particularly in developing economies. E-waste contains toxic materials harmful to the humans and the environment, and most recyclers in the developed countries don’t recycle but instead export the electronic waste to developing countries, where waste workers in e-waste processing sites are working with poor safety and environmental protections. Further, a significant quantity of e-waste ends up in the trash instead of being recycled through authorized e-waste collection centers. This rising tide of e-waste and its consequences are one of today's great challenges and in need of effective and immediate solutions.
Below are some statistics that highlight the scale of the problem.
The current world population is 7.2 billion, China and India represent over one third of this population with 2.5 billion combined (India 1.237b, China 1.351b) (Source: World Bank and United Nations).
The projected world population is estimated to be 9.6 billion by 2050. India will become the world’s most populous nation with about 1.6 billion, China is expected to remain at about 1.3 billion. Developed regions remain largely unchanged at around 1.3 billion. In contrast, the 49 least developed countries are projected to double in size from around 900 million people in 2013 to 1.8 billion in 2050 (Source: United Nations, International Business Times).
Increasing the gravity of the problem is that 80 - 95% of e-waste recycling is done by the informal sector. The environmental and health costs of e-waste generation are internalized by the informal recycling sector workers who breathe hazardous fumes and dust from the handling and recovery process. (Source: UNEP, Chintan, PRB, APC).
The rate at which EEE items are discarded is increasing at a rapid pace. Mobile phones: every 1-3 years, computers: every 3-4 years IT accessories (keyboards, mice): less than 2 years, Cameras : every 3-5 years, TVs : every 5-7 years. (Source :Electronics Take Back Coalition, September 2013)
In May 2011, the EPA estimated 20-50 million metric tons of e-waste was disposed worldwide.
In the US, 3.4 million tons of e-waste was generated of which only 25% was recycled. The remaining 75% was trashed in landfills or incinerators. The US exports 50-80% of its e-waste to India, China, Pakistan and various African Countries, as reported by the Basel Action Network (BAN). It is legal in the U.S., despite international law to the contrary, to allow export of e-waste. (Source : Basel Action Network BAN)
India & China Impact
While India and China were the primary “dumping” grounds for the world’s e-waste, domestic generation of e-waste in these countries has grown about 8 times over the last 7 years. China generated over 3 million tons of e-waste domestically in 2011, a close second to the U.S. (Sources : UNDP Report, UNEP)
E-waste products are processed for recovery of metals since they contain valuable metals such as copper, silver, and gold. Recycling 1 million cell phones can recover the following: 50 lbs of gold, 550 lbs of silver, 20 lbs of palladium, 20,000 lbs of copper (Source: US EPA, Step Initiative)
Note : Data compiled by Amita Singh D.Sc. Images taken by Shaun Fynn. Access to landfill and electronic waste sites arranged by Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.