Brief summary: Following a brief description of the Electronic waste (E-waste) this project team report highlights the challenges and impacts of E-waste and discusses how sustainable management could protect the environment and human habitat.
Electronic Waste Mountain
Electronic waste (E-waste) is a complex mixture of hazardous and non-hazardous waste, which includes of items of economic value. Also the term electronic waste is known as ‘redundant’ or ‘discarded’ electronic devices, which are proved to be hazardous for the environment. These electronic devices are made of various components of metals, plastics and other substances including precious metals like gold, silver and copper as well as hazardous elements like mercury.
Over the past two decades, the global market of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) has grown rapidly. This is largely due to what has been described as increasing market penetration of electronic products in developing countries, development of a replacement market in developed countries, and a generally high product obsolescence rate (Karin Lundgren, ILO, 2012, p.11). E-waste is now a big issue in both developed and developing countries. While the developed countries are trying to get rid of their E-wastes by exporting them to developing countries, this can equally cause damage to soil, water, air and nature as a whole. With the short lifespan of electronic products, businesses as well as waste management officials are facing a new challenge and E-waste or waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is receiving considerable amount of attention from stakeholders, mostly policy makers. Predictably the number of electrical devices will continue to increase at the global scale. Worldwide around 20 to 50 tons of E-waste is being generated annually (M. Khurrum S. Bhutta, Adnan Omar, 2011, p. 1).
Most people worldwide are unaware of the potential negative impacts of the rapidly increasing use of computers, monitors, and televisions. Meanwhile, “…certain components of electronic products contain toxic substances, which can generate a threat to the environment as well as to human health. For instance, television and computer monitors normally contain hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, while nickel, beryllium, and zinc can often be found in circuit boards.” (M. KhurrumS. Bhutta, Adnan Omar, 2011, p. 1). All these hazardous and toxic substances are released into the environment due to the improper and unsatisfactory methods of recycling. As a result, people face serious health problems including birth defects, neurological disorders and reduced resistance to infections and cancer. Simultaneously, there are environmental losses, which are: contamination of water supplies, poisoning of the soil and destruction of habitat (William Cunningham, 2002, p.310). Due to the presence of these substances, recycling and disposal of E-waste becomes an important issue.
In light of the above issues, this paper explores answers to: what are the threats and negative impacts of E-waste toxic and hazardous substances to both human and environment; what should governments and businesses do to reduce the threat to human health and the environment from the increasing electronic wastes? Then, it clarifies what should be done by each individual in order to reduce the amount of E- waste? Afterward, it enlightens how E- waste can affect the environment and how does its primitive recycling in developing countries affect the health of men, women and children who do this without protection? Next, it explains what sustainable methods we could/should use in order to recycle or reuse E-wastes. Subsequently, it elucidates what should be done by companies which produce electronic items in order to reduce the amount of E- wastes? Finally, it discusses the methods of legal and illegal transfer of E-waste, and laws and regulations enforced by international environment community.
Nearly 80 % of the E-waste in developed countries which is supposed to be recycled ends up being shipped (often illegally) to developing countries such as China, India, Ghana and Nigeria for recycling. In these countries all components of E-waste are recycled manually, by people living in poverty - informal sector (Karin Lundgren, ILO, 2012, p.9). One of the researches in Taizhou, East China, where E-waste primitive recycling method (manual separation of substances, without any machinery) took place, showed high concentration of hazardous substances (mainly persistent organic pollutants (POPs), dioxins, furans) in air, soil, dust, sediment, freshwater, fish, and cow milk samples was two times higher than it was in other regions of East China, where e- waste was not recycled (Ashley, 2009, Web). The situation is similar with India, Brazil and Mexico where people are facing increasing health problems and environmental damage, because of leaving E-waste recycling to the “vagaries” of the informal sector (Karin Lundgren, ILO, 2012, p.19).
The research on increasing health problems in the last few years show that a lot of diseases and problems related to the skin, stomach, respiratory tract and other organs have been proved to be caused by E-waste. Workers in such environments suffer high incidences of birth defects, infant mortality, tuberculosis, blood diseases, anomalies in the immune system, malfunctioning of the kidneys and respiratory system, lung cancer, underdevelopment of the brain in children and damage to the nervous and blood systems, reproductive problems and even death (Karin Lundgren, ILO, 2012, p.20).
“Informal sector E-waste activities are also a crucial source of environment and food chain contamination, as contaminants may accumulate in agricultural lands and be available for uptake by grazing livestock…most chemicals of concern have a slow metabolic rate in animals, and may bioaccumulation in tissues and be excreted in edible products such as eggs and milk.” (Karin Lundgren, ILO, 2012, p.20). All these contaminants, hazardous and toxic substances enter biological systems via food, water, air and soil (Deepti Mittal VSRD – IJCSIT, 2012, p.271). Later on, such toxic and hazardous enter the body of those workers of informal sector via inhalation, ingestion and skin absorption (Ashley, 2009, Web).
Children working as “scavengers” or “waste-pickers are particularly vulnerable to poisoning and threats posed by informal E-waste activities. The risks include more fatal and non-fatal accidents, permanent disabilities and/or ill health, and psychological, behavioral or emotional damage – can often be more devastating and lasting.” (Karin Lundgren, ILO, 2012, p.21). Children at E-waste recycling sites are reported to be suffering from medical problems, such as: breathing ailments, skin infections and stomach diseases. Infants, due to their hand-to-mouth behavior, are one of the most vulnerable groups in areas where soils and dusts are contaminated with lead. In Guiyu, China, nearly 80 percent of children suffer from respiratory diseases. According to the China Labour Bulletin, “…E-waste recycling activities have contributed to elevated blood lead levels in children and high incidence of skin damage, headaches, vertigo, nausea, chronic gastritis, and gastric and duodenal ulcers.” (Karin Lundgren, ILO, 2012, p.22)
The other issue of human risk is that those primitive methods of recycling (incineration/burning in open air, land filling/burial) disseminate geotaxis agents that threaten the health of current and future generations living in the local environment. Genotoxins are agents that damage the genetic material in cells, “…they are toxins that have been found to be mutagenic or carcinogenic, meaning they are capable of causing genetic mutations or the development of cancer” (Ashley, 2009, Web). These genotoxins include: metals, such as: chromium, beryllium, and cadmium; chlorinated dioxins and furans formed from the burning of plastics; and, flame retardants. The impact of these genotoxins on human cell’s DNA or chromosomes can lead to a number of pathologies including genetic disorders, infertility, spontaneous abortions, elevated cancer risk and premature aging (Ashley, 2009, Web).
Another huge human risk is that these hazardous and toxic substances can travel long distances through air and water and to accumulate in our bodies and the environment (Deepti Mittal, VSRD – IJCSIT, 2012, p.273). Recent studies continue to discover the presence of POPs and other contaminants in environments where they have never been produced or even used before, indicating their ability to be transported over long-ranges. (Ashley, 2009, Web)
Because the variety of E-waste is increasing exponentially, many researches are still going on the question of; whether the effect/impact from interaction of chemicals, known as “the cocktail effect”, can lead to more serious consequences rather than the effect/impact from the chemical individually? The answer is still ambiguous. The examples of “cocktail” are: multiple pesticides, diesel fumes, and other fumes and mixed solvents; chemicals are mixed with water. Exposed to sunlight in the air or dispersed within the complex chemistry of the soil. However, many scholars agreed that people impacted by “cocktail” are more likely to be or predisposed for disrupt hormonal systems, adversely affect on reproductive functions and causation of certain types of cancer. (Karin Lundgren, ILO, 2012, p.24)
Having read these devastating results presented above, it seems that, each person can understand that all of us are impacted by E – waste hazardous substances. The results of E- waste chemical’s impact – all those illnesses (birth defects, neurological disorders, reduce resistance to infection, different types of cancer, problems related to the skin, stomach, respiratory tract, infant mortality, tuberculosis, blood diseases, anomalies in the immune system, malfunctioning of the kidneys, underdevelopment of child brain, damage to the nervous and blood systems, reproductive problems and even death), as well as the contamination of air, water, soil, food chain, flora and fauna – are caused by chemicals due to improper recycling methods. Taking into account that the amount of E-waste will be rapidly growing, we have to realize, that if effective methods of regulating E-waste are not undertaken by policymakers and each of us, there will be disastrous consequences, as for the present and future generations.
Despite the significant increase in the amount of the electronic waste, still some developing countries do not take it as a serious problem. Yearly our global E-waste generation is growing by about “40 million” tons. Governments should be very keen in reducing the amount of electronic waste in their countries. Nations can prevent or reduce the amount of electronic waste by taking the problem itself so serious. There are many ways that countries can do in order to reduce the threat to human health and the environment from the growing amount of E- waste. First, governments especially in developing countries should support and cooperate with UNEPs program regarding solid waste management. The UNEP project (ISWM) integrated solid waste management, “aims to promote identification and implementation environmentally sound technologies (ESTs) including collection, segregation, transportation, treatment, disposal, recovery and recycle” (E- Waste Management Manual, p.12, Pdf). The (ISWM) is based on the 3R (reduce, reuse and recycle) in urban areas of Asia pacific and Africa.