In an era of rapidly progressing technology, there is a constant demand for the latest and greatest electronics. Be it phones, computers, televisions, or any other electronic device, it is not long before a product becomes obsolete and is replaced with a newer one. These outdated devices, known as electronic waste or e-waste, are left to be disposed in one manner or another. By a large margin, it is the fastest growing waste stream globally and is posed for significant growth in coming years.
Annually, some 53 million tons of e-waste are produced, predominately by developed nations with large amounts of disposable income. A majority of the waste is simply thrown away, but an increasing amount is being recycled. Recent estimates have found that about 20 percent of the waste is properly recycled. What happens to the rest? Much of the waste finds its way to developing countries, particularly nations in Africa and Asia.
Like many other services in emerging economies, it is far less costly to break down e-waste into its reusable components than it would be in the country that produced it. The problem is that with lower environmental standards and fewer safety regulations, the recycling of e-waste can cause serious health and environmental challenges. Electronic products are laced with a plethora of toxic materials such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and mercury. To extract the reusable materials, workers typically burn the waste or dissolve it in acid, usually with little or no protection. In essence, 21st century toxics are managed by labor that uses 17th century technology.
The impact on local populations has been devastating. Frequently, the toxic materials find their way into the air, water, and soil, poisoning the workers that recycle the waste. Communities that have large e-waste recycling operations have seen significant increases in respiratory illnesses, birth defects, developmental damage, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. The problem is further complicated by the fact that much of the recycling work is done by children, leaving them at-risk for illnesses other occupations do not have.
Recognizing the problems e-waste may impose on developing countries, the international community has made attempts to alleviate the issue, primarily through the framework of the Basel Convention. The convention has been ratified by every country in the world with the exceptions of Afghanistan, Haiti, and the U.S. The strongest component of the law, the 1994 Ban Amendment, prohibits the most developed countries from exporting hazardous waste to non-OECD members. In recent years, there has been a growing voice to define many of the e-waste exports for recycling as hazardous substances that should be banned.
But the situation is more complicated than it may initially appear. Loopholes in legislation and enforcement create an incentive for illegal exports: it is not uncommon for exporters to falsify their customs documents to bring their waste into destination countries. More often than not, the shipments reach their destination; on a yearly basis, at least 250,000 metric tons of e-waste illegally enter the Western African nations of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria. Additionally, there is still much disagreement amongst countries and businesses as to what exactly constitutes e-waste, leaving large portions of the trade in a legal grey area.
For many in low-income countries with few job opportunities for the uneducated, e-waste recycling is a source of livelihood. If imports of electronics were suddenly eliminated, a large source of economic revenue would disappear. For a relatively small country such as Ghana, a complete ban e-waste recycling would cost $105 to $268 million in lost wages. Dangerous as it may be, e-waste offers pay that is better than other alternatives; in the Guangdong providence of Southeastern China, workers flock to the recycling jobs that pay about $8 a day, a wage that is far better than agricultural work.
Efforts in the U.S. to regulate e-waste exports are going nowhere, leaving the primary responsibility to consumers. One of the most notable movements, the e-Stewards initiative, is modeled after various fair trade movements. Similar to its fair trade counterparts, the organization offers a certification to e-waste recyclers that follow the guidelines of the Basel Convention. For an annual fee, recyclers are inspected to ensure their compliance with some of the highest standards in the industry. Naturally, adoption of the practices increases overhead costs, but it does give concerned consumers the assurance that their recycling will not endanger workers in a developing country.
Future prospects for e-waste are uncertain. As electronic devices improve and more people gain access to them, there will be an unavoidable increase in the production of waste. Ultimately, the capacity to recycle must be improved to accommodate health and environmental challenges. In the meantime, a delicate balance must be struck between sustainability concerns and economic interests.