eWaste: Don’t swipe left!

Remember the times when we used to write long letters in ink to our grandparents living in a different province, and waited nearly a month to receive a mail-in reply? Do you recall the impeccable thrill of tying a small hand-written note to a messenger pigeon, and expecting it to be delivered at the right place? Honestly, me neither. Almost every millennial or Gen Z kid has grown up in the vicinity of modern tech items, and the world has been in the palm of our hands for as long as we can remember. We grew up playing Mario on our Nintendo Game Boy whereas our great ancestors had adopted the sport of hunting birds with a marble-slingshot as their prime, competitive source of entertainment. This new venture into the high-tech era, coined a fancy new term: ‘e-waste’… which, in the opinion of some experts, pose the next big challenge for humanity. Let’s get to the point: What is e-waste? Electronic waste, also called e-waste, refers to various forms of electric and electronic equipment that have ceased to be of value to their users or no longer satisfy their original purpose. In short, any broken or obsolete electronic items that are no longer needed / useful and are lying in our basement waiting to be thrown away can be referred to as e-waste.  It can be argued that the cheaper and more prevalent these everyday electronic items have become, the more their longevity and endurance have declined. 

Graph: A visual representation of data of gadget ownership by people aged 17-64 in 105 countries from a research overseen by globalwebindex.

Now that various types of such electronic gadgets are so affordable and widely available: people these days not only have more tech products than they had 20 years ago, but they also tend to show a higher-tendency of changing them more frequently just for the sole reason of staying up to date with the trends. Data derived from a study overseen by globalwebindex indicates that currently there are more people who own a smartphone, a PC and a laptop than people who own smartphones alone; furthermore, 48% of digital consumers say having the latest technological products is very important to them.  The downside of living in a capitalist economy in 2020 is that tech-manufacturers are only eager to feed us their brand new, affordable tech products every single day. They are, to an alarming extent, very successful in doing so by generating artificial demand and luring us into believing those lucrative advertisements that some fancy wearable device can play a ‘significant’ role in improving your health and fitness; or that you really need that shiny new pair of waterproof (?) earbuds because it can ‘revolutize’ the way you experience music. Add to that, they are never shy of preaching the fact that those uber-cool earbuds are 50% off on Black Friday and a deal as good won’t last forever. We, blinded by the sheer excitement of owning a plethora of these cutting-edge stuff, have unknowingly accelerated a vicious, irreversible cycle of environmental pollution through the rapid production and discarding of these tech-products, and the (negative) consequences are sure to follow soon.

Photo: An employee examines electronic waste waiting to be recycled at the Electronic Recyclers International plant in Holliston, Massachusetts.

_______________________________________________________________________________________ Photo by: ZORAN MILICH, GETTY IMAGES

Visuals & Data adapted from:

‘Imagine a 176-pound (80 kilogram) pile of discarded products with a battery or plug in your living room. That’s how much e-waste the average American household of four throws out every year!’ 

STEPHEN LEAHY, NATGEO

Around the world, as incomes rise and prices fall, the yearly e-waste mountain is growing, reaching 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) in 2016, which was equivalent to the size of about 4500 Eiffel towers. That includes old refrigerators, television sets, vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, mobile phones, computers, and much more. This e-waste mountain is expected to grow another 17 percent by 2021 to 52.2 million metric tonnes, which is nearly as much as the weight of three hundred thousand Boeing 747-400 jumbo jets. This estimate also shows that the amount of e-waste produced by each inhabitant might increase to 6.8 kg by 2021, a number which was roughly around 6.1kg back in 2016. Scientists claim that e-waste is no less of an environmental threat than that of plastic, as ~98% of material recovered from electronic junk are undeniably indecomposable in nature. While the positive decision undertaken by a tech giant like Apple to not include chargers and headphones with their new smartphones in order to reduce carbon footprint is surely a welcoming approach, it still does not go halfway into diminishing this problem. Recycling these hundreds of thousands of tonnes of e-waste sounds like the straightforward ‘go-to’ plan: but it is easier said than done. While recycling is the common norm for treating e-waste globally, a big portion of electronic wastes can only be partially recycled, or might probe to be economically non-feasible after a certain period of time. Thus, a large chunk of that unrecyclable e-waste ends up in landfills along with other common garbage, dangerously polluting soil and water in the process. E-waste contains more than 1000 different substances, many of which are toxicants ranging from heavy metals to persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Furthermore, recycling e-waste is not only a lengthy, complicated and expensive process, but it is also extremely dangerous for the health of the people associated with it. Majority of modern electronic devices also comprise toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium, in addition to hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants, which can cause extensive damage to human health, even leading to possible cases of cancer. Reports have shown that about 700 million obsolete phones discarded in 2005 contained an estimated 560,000kg of lead in the form of solder ; 22% of the yearly world consumption of mercury was used in electronics manufacture and 70% of the heavy metals (mercury and cadmium) in the US landfills came from electronic waste and 40% lead in landfills came from electrical and electronic equipment. The e-waste harm to the environment and human health is much more severe than that of any other common wastes because e-waste not only contains a range of hazardous substances but is also extremely difficult to recycle and dispose. For example, a single button battery can make 600 tons of water undrinkable, an amount enough for an average person’s life-time consumption. Countries like China, India or Vietnam, which have been the centre-hub for recycling huge amounts of e-waste, have all recently turned away from the continuing the process largely due to the negative impacts on labour health, and non-profitability. 

Well, that sounds scary! Solutions? Frankly, there are many. Electronics have always produced waste, but the quantity and speed of discard has increased rapidly in recent years due to the current trend of excessive buying / upgrading of gadgets. We may come across multiple solutions in order to control this problem. ‘Product take-back programs’ might be introduced and encouraged, where either the manufacturers are mandatorily required to take back a non-functioning/partially functioning component or exchange such electronic items for a reasonable reward in case of voluntary, negotiated take-back programs. Governments may undertake regulatory approaches by imposing strict laws to maintain minimum product standards and prohibiting certain hazardous materials. Other economic measures such as collecting advance recycling fees or adding material subsidies may also work. Another possible solution might be to adopt modular technologies and increase the lifespan of each piece of electronic gadget overall.  However, such measures are not entirely expected to work affluently in our current capitalist economy. Thus, there are also a few small, sustainable, and practical initiatives we can easily adopt which may prove to be a total game-changer for the civilization in future. 

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

Ever thought of turning e-waste into creative art?

If you’re a passionate individual looking to showcase your creative outburst, this might be your glorious opportunity to give back something to the environment while doing something you genuinely love. Good thing is, all the raw materials you’ll ever need, are probably just lying around you (or your basement), or may just be collected from your neighbours, without costing you a single penny! Notable E-waste artists like Benjamin von Wong, who is renowned for his eco-friendly collaboration campaign with Dell, loves to display his fascinating work of art in order to create a positive social impact. British artist Susan Stockwell’s recycled world map entirely made up of discarded computer parts made her an overnight social media sensation. To add some extra motivation: e-waste art is highly appreciated amongst the collector community nowadays, and high-quality art creations have a strong potential to yield fat paychecks if sold on Etsy!

Warning: This is not a painting!

__________________________________________________________________________Credits: Benjamin von Wong

Donate. Reuse.

Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky on Unsplash

Got an old printer that still (somehow) works just fine? Do you still have your dad’s old laptop lying inside a cupboard that only requires minimal repairs to function properly again? Bought that gorgeous new 4K TV on thanksgiving sale, no longer have room for your old one? Donate! Their are numerous non-profit organizations across Alberta (and all of Canada) who will collect and recycle your old / junk electronic items free of charge. Many even run effective redistribution programs where you can donate your old, functioning electronics and share it with people who might be in need of it. As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Keep your eyes and ears open for any such welfare activities or campaigns running in your locality, appreciate them, support them. Last but not the least, don’t hesitate to borrow or take stuff from these services for personal use if you need it, even if you can afford it. You might actually be doing more good to the world than just helping your pocket!

 

Join the (true) gold rush! 

Unlike the 20th century Alaska gold rush, this is is not a hoax. Electronic ‘waste’ is an incredible, realistic source of precious metals. A metric ton of recycled laptop circuit boards can yield 40 to 800 times as much gold as the ore itself. According to reliable e-waste mining sources: every 1 million cell phones that are recycled, about 16,000 kg of copper, 350 kg of silver, 34 kg of gold, and 15 kg of palladium can be effectively recovered: equating a value upwards of 5 million CAD! Unfortunately, DIY e-waste mining is still impractical and not recommended. As we study further to safely, and efficiently extract these precious metals from e-waste: it can certainly be possible to run mining plants safely on a small scale in the near future… and it’s not too late to jump in!

Photo by Ramiro Mendes on Unsplash

Tahmid Al Hafiz

Edmonton, AB, Canada

alhafiz@ualberta.ca

_________

References:

[1] G. N. Gill, Green Technology: An A-Z Guide, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, Chicago [Online] Available: https://www.britannica.com/technology/electronic-waste [Accessed November 22, 2020]

[2] S. Leahy, ‘‘Each U.S. Family Trashes 400 iPhones’ Worth of E-Waste a Year’’, National Geographic, 13th December 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/12/e-waste-monitor-report-glut/ [Accessed November 22, 2020].

[3] J. Koebler, ‘‘A Shocking Amount of E-Waste Recycling Is a Complete Sham’’, VICE News, 20th September 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/aeky44/much-of-americas-e-waste-recycling-is-a-sham [Accessed November 22, 2020].

[4] H. Ban et al., ‘‘E-waste: Environmental Contamination and Public Health Effects in Guiyu, Southeast China’’ in E-Waste: Management, Types and Challenges, Y. Li, B. Wang, Eds. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2012, Ch 5, pp. 109–123 [Online]. Available: https://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=e6404cb4-ab2a-4d09-a7f2-5b7e6d02db60%40sessionmgr4008&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=540893&db=e000xna [Accessed 29th November, 2020]

[5] V. Trifonova, “How Device Usage Changed in 2018 and What it Means for 2019”, GlobalWebIndex, 20th November 2018. [Online]. Available: https://blog.globalwebindex.com/trends/device-usage-2019/?fbclid=IwAR32R5nq_QrbyLyXptYD4P1QpJ5ADtaT9kqQ-jWSxz-BPRG-2SJPFH5x4Ew [Accessed November 27, 2020].

[6] B. Tansel, “From electronic consumer products to wastes: Global outlook, waste quantities, recycling challenges,” Environment International, vol. 98, January, 2017. [Online serial]. Available: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412016305414 [Accessed 28th November, 2020].

[7] Y. Krishnamoorthy et al., “Emerging public health threat of e-waste management: global and Indian perspective,” Reviews on Environmental Health, vol. 33, 2018: Tel Aviv, pp.321-329 [Online serial]. Available: https://search-proquest-com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/docview/2168031315/fulltextPDF/3A838EF3F33B448DPQ/1?accountid=14474 [Accessed 29th November, 2020].

[8] B. Cuffari, “Extracting Gold from E-Waste,” AZoCleantech. [ONLINE] Available: https://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=689. (Accessed November 30, 2020).

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