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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

E-Waste - Deal With It !, really! You've got to deal with it !!!

E-waste is the name for discarded electronic devices. Phones, computers, TV and audio sets and all other appliances which feature circuitry fall into this category. Like any other waste, it too ends up in the landfills, where it rots for ages.

Why is this a problem?

Electronic devices are the most dangerous trash products after nuclear, chemical and petrol waste. This is because their circuits consist of many heavy metals like lead, palladium, gallium and mercury. They are extremely toxic and life threatening. Although e-waste only accounts for two to four percent of the world's garbage, it's the cause of 70% of the toxicity released by the landfills. In particular, electronic appliances are to blame for 40% of all the lead in the dumps. An old CRT screen can contain up to 3kg of lead. In time, those poisonous materials leak into the air, soil and water resources and contaminate the environment.

For a start, e-waste is highly inefficient. The current market model for electronics demands a one year upgrade cycle just to stay in tact with cutting-edge technology. This results in disposal of perfectly good and usable devices. Also, nowadays OEMs design their products in such a way that offers sales possibilities.
Apple is a great example for this market model. Their devices are called one use by the public. This is because when the equipment is damaged, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to open and repair the appliance.
    Apple achieves two goals by this design:
  1. They achieve better performance when they cramp more electronics into the case.
  2. They achieve more sales because repair is hard and upgrade is virtually impossible.
All this results in countless of perfectly good devices thrown in the dump. Even in a broken electronic gear most components are perfectly fine and can still be used in the manufacturing of new ones. Instead, we throw them away and produce new ones. Efficiency is nowhere near the current situation.

Only twelve and a half percent of all electronic devices are collected and recycled. Everything else is left to rot and contaminate in the landfills. Sixty million dollars are wasted annually in gold, silver, copper and other precious materials not salvaged from the used electronics.
 On top of that, the reprocessing is conducted with outdated, inefficient and highly pollutant technology and methods.
Most contractors ship their stock to third world countries in Africa and Asia. Because their laws can be bypassed and their authorities are highly corrupted, the recycling companies can use their dangerous techniques and get away with it. This results in more pollution and intoxication to the people.

The capital of Ghana - Accra has the second biggest dump site in West Africa. In Agbogbloshie, used electronics are burned in incinerators to recover some of the materials back. Of course particles of the heavy metals get educed into the smoke and directly contaminate the environment.

Another favourable place to conduct this "recycling" is China. The Guiyu dump is the biggest e-waste landfill in the world with a total of 52 square kilometres covered in processors, screens, circuit boards and Apple and Samsung logos.. It's also one of humanity's monuments of self-induced tragedy and death.
The children of the settlement surrounding the Guiyu dump have 54% more lead in their blood than the those of the adjacent villages and towns. Many of them work in the 55 recycling workshops around the dump where soil samples are 371 time more rich in lead than samples of 30 kilometres away.

Furthermore, there are huge amounts of production factories for electronics, so the raw materials are sold like hot bread. However, a research from 2008 shows the countries rice supplies are heavily contaminated with lead.

Right now, the law prohibits disposal of electronic devices of any kind in the conventional trash cans. However, most appliances are small enough and nobody can track where they end up. On top of things, the punishment this law enforces is a warning or at most a minimal fine. People can easily disregard the law out of laziness.
A bigger problem, however, is public unawareness. Most people literally just don't know what e-waste is and how dangerous it actually is.

What solutions can we offer?

If large scale campaigns are funded, the public can be informed of what their actions result and take a step to a cleaner environment.

A genius concept in the working is modular design. It's a step forwards to change the way how electronic devices are created and adapt them for re-usability and upgrade, while reducing waste in every step.

Motorola's "Project Ara" and the independent "Phonebloks" currently represent that idea.
The design of both devices focuses on the compartmentalization of all internal hardware, allowing all parts to be grouped in function based modules. All modules are independent from each other, which allows each to be removed and replaced in a plug and play method.
Contrary to the current manufacturing model, modularity allows you to keep your entire device and only change segments that don't work or don't satisfy you - no more throwing working electronics in the bin.
A concept like that, attacking almost every phase of the problem sounds too good to be true. Time will tell if it's so.

Another brilliant idea is to create a disposal pipeline which starts at the user and ends up into reprocessing plants.

For a start every e-device can be purchased only after they make an eco-deposit for it. The sum will be evaluated by the constitution of the device. When the time for disposal comes, the consumer has to return the device to the store in order to receive their eco-deposit back. Nothing will motivate a man more than money, so naturally most will follow up on the eco-plan, instead of throw away their junk in the nearest trash can.
After the store receives the electronics, they will surrender it back to the manufacturer, who will compensate them for the storage and distribution, as well as a little extra for the effort. Because they made the appliance, they can easily identify still usable components and circuitry. Those will be salvaged and used in the production of new devices.
This will greatly lower their expenses on materials and will enhance production times. In the end they will earn far more than what they gave as compensation to the stores which provided the broken or unused equipment.

The pile of useless junk can then be redirected to a reprocessing factories and contractors. They can extract the raw materials like copper, gold, silver, aluminium, palladium and plastic and later reforge and ultimately sell them back to manufacturers.There is a need for the government to enforce control over this final step to make it so that we don't create another Agbogbloshie or Guiyu.

There already exist a form of the above concept in Maine, the U.S. You can read more about it in this Press Herald post.


As usually, the answers to a hard question already exist. The real questions is are we willing to apply them ? 
E-waste is a problem widely recognized by organizations, nations, unions and whatever groups and bodies there are. However, none of them can stop it, unless every person starts to take responsibility for his waste. The power to change a global problem is within the power of every man and woman to act in favour of making it better. 

I will not tell you to quit your consumerist behaviour. First, because it's hard coded in the very essence of humans to use and crave technology. But most of all because I'm a consumerist as well. I'm very far from restraining myself from consuming and acquiring (whatever object it is) and I know how bad it feels not to be able to. 

I'm just being smart in the way I deal with what I've consumed and will not use any longer. Simple as that. 

More articles on waste, ecology and recycling: 

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