Electronic Product Design

Tuesday, 22 September 2015 00:00 Written by 

electronic wasteE-Waste VI

We haven’t had an e-waste article since early February, so I thought it was about time we looked at the global struggle to cope with the ever-growing mountains of discarded technology. E-waste is one of the single fastest growing global industries, spanning nearly all nations, encapsulating the flow of raw potential material from the West to the rest. We are at an impasse with the world’s e-waste production and the means for recycling.

EU Problems

The Western world is undoubtedly the biggest generator of e-waste. Our love of new technologies, new gadgets, and new computers is causing an astronomical amount of e-waste, with a recent UN report detailing how Europe’s ill-managed e-waste could form a “10 metre high brick wall stretching from Oslo to the toe of Italy". That’s around 3,000km, for reference.

We generate vast amounts of e-waste, but our attitude toward recycling leaves more than a little to be desired. Improvements are being made throughout the continent but a vast amount of e-waste is still dumped on African nations ill-equipped to deal with the high levels of material toxicity found in some prominent devices.

Jaco Huisman, scientific coordinator of European Union e-waste regulator CWIT explains that “the majority of illegal trade and undesired activities is actually happening in Europe. From the 9.5 million tonnes of waste that the Europeans are generating, we are only collecting 3.3 million tonnes officially". As you can see, this is a glaring hole. The rest of the waste – some 6.2 million tonnes – is simply being discarded: put in regular bins, heading to landfills, dumped, or otherwise exported out of Europe without having the most hazardous materials removed from the product.

This is despite many European Union nations ratifying the 1989 Basel Convention, an international treaty designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste, particularly from developed to less-developed countries.

Agbogbloshie

You’ve likely never heard of Agbogbloshie. It is a former wetland of Ghanaian capital, Accra, now transformed into one of the world’s largest e-waste dumping areas. It is the centrepiece of a global e-waste dumping epidemic and has rated as one of the most polluted locations on the planet; locals refer to it as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah'. And despite the obvious hazards involved, the massive site sees some 40,000 people earning a meagre existence through the e-waste, with labourers pocketing $1 to $2.50 per day whilst risking their lives. The workers trawl through discarded waste searching for anything of value: circuit boards, microprocessors, server racks, down to metals such as copper.

The breakdown of materials often leads to dangerously high concentrations of toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, thallium, dioxin, hydrogen cyanide, cadmium chromium, and brominated flame retardants, alongside plumes of black smoke where other labourers burn piles of e-waste.

Agbogbloshie isn’t a one off, either. It is a stark symbol of a broken consumer manufacturing culture where producers build obsolesce into their wares, literally designing them to break under normal use. Bad for consumers, bad for labourers, bad for the planet. Solutions must be found. The EU needs a serious strategic plan encompassing each member state, evaluating and implementing schemes which see some Scandinavian countries recycle upwards of 90% of their e-waste, compared to a number of Southern European countries only recycling around 25%.

Image courtesy of: anankkml / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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