Technological innovation of the past has led to an abundance of electronic products. These products once thrown away are considered electronic waste or commonly referred to as E-waste. Electronic waste is a huge source of environmental pollution and endangers the health of people. It is the one of the fastest growing industries of recycling, thus has the potential for mass amounts of pollution to the environment. It is therefore urgent to find ways to generate less of this type of waste, and to recycle it safely.
- 1 Context within NORA
- 2 Understanding Current Patterns of Abundance and Scarcity
- 3 Approaches to creating greater Abundance
- 4 Links
- 5 References
Context within NORA
Relationships to Needs
Electronics produce a lot of waste, including metals (of varying characteristics), rubber, glass and plastics – all of which can be harmful if simply thrown away.
Landfills, and any kind of improper processing of e-waste also pollute the air to breathe and water to drink, which are capable of traveling and spreading the pollution. This can have severe impacts on health of humans as well as of other living things, which can be greatly mitigated by better management practices.
Relationships to Resources
Disposal of e-waste in landfills can contribute to a greater scarcity of land, particularly in densely populated areas where landfill space competes with agricultural, urban and industrial land uses (well beyond the site of the landfill itself).
Recycling materials will decrease demand for new raw materials, reducing requirements for mineral resources.
Living things are negatively affected by the land use, pollution, and mining mentioned above.
The electronic items that are thrown away are a type of human-made, physical assets. Throwing them away or doing a poor job of processing them ignores their potential value.
Relationships to Organizational Forms
Electronic waste recycling relates to the natural resource management clusters in that it could help reduce the need to mine new minerals, and reduce the environmental impacts associated with disposal of electronic wastes.
Recycling can take the form of individual sales if recyclers take individual computers from consumers for purposes of recycling. More often, however, there will be longer-term contracts between recycling businesses and companies that discard large numbers of computers (or take them back from customers), which fit in the committed sales or service cluster. If manufacturers commit themselves (or are committed by law) to take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of the products they sell, then this would fit into the same cluster.
Recycling of electronic waste also ties directly into currencies and markets. The recycling of high value and rare materials will put them back into the market, potentially counteracting the steady rise in price as supplies of virgin raw materials decline. The economics of recycling or disposal are very sensitive to labor costs, as well as government regulations (which can create markets for recycling where none existed before).
Understanding Current Patterns of Abundance and Scarcity
The United Nations estimates that up to 50 millions of E-waste is thrown away worldwide each year (6). About 50-80% of the E-waste is exported to developing countries in Asia (2).
"Recycling" in Ghana and China
E-waste is often exported to Ghana for incredibly low prices by many companies. In Ghana, it is usually dumped into huge scrapyards that completely lack any sort of protection, causing harmful components like mercury, brominated fire retardants, and lead to leak into the soil and water.
In the scrapyard, workers with little pay and less protection search for the valuable components among the junk, prying the electronics open for valuable metals. What rubber and plastic remains is either dumped into a landfill, which pollutes the soil and water, or simply burned, which pollutes the air (Caroll; Greenpeace International)
Guiyu, a city in southern China, is home to a similar situation as Ghana's, on a far greater scale. Referred to as the "E-Waste Capital of the World," Guiyu employs well over 150,000 workers who pick through scrapyards and dumps for cables, chips, boards, cases, and batteries for reprocessing. Like in Ghana, there is rampant uncontrolled burning, grinding of plastics, and disposal that causes much pollution, leading to severe local health problems, especially lead poisoning (Basel Action Network).
Issues potentially arising from E-waste
Electronic waste has become the fastest growing solid waste around the world. Recycling using primitive practices creates very harmful results for the environment and population in the surrounding area. A few recent issues found are listed below.
1) In Guiyu, China the children living in the area have been proven to have higher blood lead levels, due to the pollution from the E-waste(1).
2) After testing the soil in southern China near the three largest E-waste recycling cities in China (Taizhou, Guiyu, and Qingyuan) scientists found a mixture of metals and plastics including polychlorinated biphenyls (PBSs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) which can cause negative effects on the environment through the water, air, and soil. Exposing the human population to this toxin could have side health effects (2).
Toxins that recycling companies do not include in recyclable products (and which end up in waste dumps):
- lead and cadmium in computer circuit boards
- lead oxide and barium in computer monitors and T.V. cathode-ray tubes
- mercury in switches and flat screens
- fire retardant used on printed circuit boards and plastic casings (3)
3) Another concern in the E-waste industry is the "return-to-sender" issue, as large amounts are shipped to China. Much of this electronic waste is "informally recycled", meaning recycled through primitive practices taking pieces apart by hand. Products made out of this "recycled" metal are then exported from China. This year the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued 18 recall notices affecting more than 6.7 million pieces of jewelry for children and teenagers that it says contains dangerous levels of lead. A underlying issue about the jewelry manufacturing is that the Chinese government only sets limits on lead content in toys, but not in jewelry for children or adults (6).
E-Cycling in the United States
The EPA currently maintains a database of locations in each state where electronics can be donated and recycled. Currently, this seems to be the furthest the EPA is interested in recycling laws, other than safety laws on disposal. Recycling programs generally fall to the state level. Twenty-five states (in order of adoption: California, Maine, Maryland, Washington, Connecticut, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, Missouri, Hawai'i, Rhode Island, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Vermont, South Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah) have adopted some variety of program dealing with the recycling, donating, or reusing of electronics in addition to various independent organizations that promote similar ideals.
Although affluent industrialized nations have laws that prohibit dumping of e-waste within the country itself, there is no law stating the waste cannot be taken elsewhere. As it is significantly cheaper to simply throw the waste material in a big hole in a country with lax laws than it is to actually process any of it, it happens far more often than it really should. Places like China and Ghana are so often chosen because of their government's extremely lax laws regarding environmental issues and the willing workforce in the area to do their own scavenging of the waste.
To stop this, there could be a United Nations-backed initiative to eliminate the unsafe dumping of e-waste in signatory countries, similar to the Basel Convention to control hazardous waste disposal, though this would still require nations to sign such an agreement. Governments in the most affected countries (such as China and Ghana) could also pass similar laws that ban dumping.
However, simple disposal just is not enough. Corporations need to be induced to recycle rather than dispose on a national level. This could be done by either making recycling more attractive, or by making the option of not recycling unattractive. How this specifically could be done is wide open; a government could either provide bonus rewards to companies that operate recycling programs that meet a set of criteria, or could impose taxes on waste brought to landfills. It could also require companies to take back the products they sell and recycle them safely; this would create an incentive to design their products in such a way that they are easily recyclable.
Efforts toward better Product Design
Inspired by the "Cradle-to-Cradle" concept and "Intelligent Product System," there are some efforts to develop better products. These include Phonebloks and Fairphones
Phonebloks is a project to create a phone that is modular, not unlike computers or laptops. The core of the phone is simply a circuit board with a touch screen; the rest of the functionality comes in a diverse collection of 'bloks' that are attached to the back and secured with a panel. Every bit of hardware is customizable, from the screen and internal memory to a camera or microphone. Most of the bloks would be user-contributed by various startups in addition to established brands. Very little hardware would be replaced, on a very seldom basis.
A related venture, Fairphone, has already started production. They are seeking to introduce the "fair trade" concept into the production of smartphones, ensuring that tantalum, tin and other materials used in the phone are from mines where they do not fund armed struggle and the workers are paid decently, enabling better working conditions in the factory where the smartphones are produced, producing a phone that can be used for a long time, and helping to establish methods of safe e-waste recycling. They are not fully there yet – and can not be at the current scale of operations. For example, according to one of their blog posts, the factory in Chonqing, China, were the first smartphones are being produced (December 2013) has 1000 employees, of whom only 100 are involved in producing the fairphones. In order to improve working conditions for all workers at the factory, Fairphone has begun a process involving the management of the company and the workers; in the immediate term, a $2.50 surcharge on each phone sold is put in a fund (matched by the company, thus $5 per phone) managed by a body elected by the workers and to be used for the benefit of the workers as they decide.
Note that the above paragraph is based only on the company's own web-site and a Deutsche Welle report and is thus not fully fact-checked.
Approaches to creating greater Abundance
Rather than buying a new product, consider:
- Replacing one component or the software (check whether the electronic item can be repaired before throwing it out)
- Buy every other new model, rather than every single new model
Companies can design modular products, and design them so that they can be easily recycled. See Intelligent Product Systems.
Manufacturing companies can take back electronic products and recycle them.
Governments can pass laws requiring manufacturers of electronic products to take them back and recycle them.
Some preventative legislation around the world in regards to E- waste is listed below:
-In 2003 the European Union (EU) passed a directive forcing electronics manufacturers to take back and recycle up to 75 percent of products they sell in the Europe (3).
– In 2002 California passed the Electronic Waste Recycling Act which banned the export of e-waste to foreign countries that don't meet certain international environmental standards. This law collects a surcharge from consumers at the point of purchase to fund e-waste recycling; along with requiring manufacturers to eliminate certain hazardous ingredients from electronics sold in California (3).
Expanding on government policies, in 2007 China started Phase 1 of their plan for economic stability. In China the Communist Party has implemented environmental regulations on electronic waste, parallel to the Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) (4). During phase one Chinese companies were required to label their products with the metals contained. The Chinese regulations do not exempt large stationary industry tools, unlike in the European Union. A large stationary industry tool is large metal equipment used in past productions that has now been recycled.
Phase 2 started soon after aiming to eliminate certain hazardous substances in products, that are due to the metal from the E-waste which can be contaminated with harmful chemicals (4). Along with these expectation the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MITT) issued a catalog of procedures when recycling E-waste; this catalog mainly puts emphasis on categorizing resources with "high volume" or high potential to sell and placing them above materials with low potential.This creates a greater abundance as China adopts the goal of environmental sustainability, as it can be seen as harmful to the surrounding population (4).
A great example of a business recycling E-waste in the proper fashion is Citiraya Industries Ltd. It is one of the few companies in the world that handles electronic trash properly, in a high-tech fashion. Citiraya's collection centers in 11 countries, including China, India and the United Kingdom, ship electronic trash to Singapore for processing. Recently, the company even signed a deal with the government of China to build a recycling facility in the city of Wuxi (3).
The company takes several precautions to ensure the safety of employees including: wearing thick boots, gloves and breathing apparatuses. Other procedures to ensure the protection of the environment are monitors installed by Singapore's National Environmental Agency, which analyze the air discharged and the trickle of waste water that enters the city's sewage system. The company uses chemicals to strip out materials such as gold, copper and plastic resins. A tracking system documents every move of every used computer or phone. This process includes the shipment and break-down processes so that manufacturers and customers can prove they have complied with regulatory requirements. The plan in Singapore features 60 cameras linked to a computer system so clients can watch the destruction of their products via the internet. Overall, Citiraya's Singapore plant recycles about 90 % of the products that manufacturers ship it (3).
Basel Action Network: non-profit organization that exerts pressure on governments to stop the export of hazardous waste to developing countries, and to support the production of products that do not generate toxic waste.
E-Stewards: certifies responsible e-waste recyclers in the United States; the site provides a map where you can find them.
Basel Action Network. 25 Feb. 2002. Exporting Harm – The High-Tech Trashing of Asia.
Carroll, Chris. "High-Tech Trash." National Geographic January 2008.
EWASA (E-Waste Association of South Africa)
Greenpeace International, Web. 5 Aug. 2008. Poisoning the poor – Electronic Waste in Ghana .
Leonard, Annie. 2010. The Story of Stuff: How our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health – and a vision for change. New York: Free Press. See especially pages 202-206.
United Nations. United Nations Environmental Programme. Recycling – From E-waste to Resources. New York: United Nations, 2009.
Wang, Feng, Ruediger Kuehr, Daniel Ahlquist, and Jinhui Li. 2013. E-waste in China: A Country Report United Nations University, INstitute for Sustainability and Peace.
(1) Xia, H., Lin, P., Xijin, X., Liangkai, Z., Bo, Q., Zongli, Q., & … Zhongxian, P. (2007). Elevated Blood Lead Levels of Children in Guiyu, an Electronic Waste Recycling Town in China. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(7), 1113-1117.
(2) Wang, L., Hou, M., An, J., Zhong, Y., Wang, X., Wang, Y., & … Fu, J. (2011). The cytotoxic and genetoxic effects of dust and soil samples from E-waste recycling area on L02 cells. Toxicology & Industrial Health, 27(9), 831-839. doi:10.1177/0748233711399313
(3) Prystay, C. (2004, Sep 23). Recycling 'E-waste'; Singapore company finds global edge in processing toxic computers, TVs safely. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/398896241?accountid=41096
(4) Adam Bobrow, Paul Jones, Robin Gerofsky Kaptzan, Jin Ma and Thomas P. Redick The International Lawyer, Vol. 43, No. 2, International Legal Developments in review: 2008 (SUMMER 2009), pp. 1073-1098 Published by: American Bar Association Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40708319
(5) McDonald, Joes. 5 October 2013, "Chinese clean up is changing recycling worldwide; government responded to increased public awareness about pollution by tightening standards on foreign trash imports", Newspaper: Business section D5, The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia)
(6) Fairclough, G. (2007, Jul 12). Lead toxins take a global round trip; 'E-waste' from computers discarded in west turns up in china's exported trinkets. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/399092136?accountid=41096
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