The electronics industry is the world’s fastest growing manufacturing sector. People are upgrading their mobile phones, computers, televisions etc. more frequently than ever before. This, along with fast product obsolescence and rising wealth in the developing economies, has led to electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) waste, also known as e-waste, becoming the fastest growing waste stream in the world. So, as we clamor for the latest electronic gadget to hit the market, what happens to discarded and obsolete items?
20-50 million metric tons of electronic waste generated annually
The term e-waste encompasses a broad and growing range of electronic devices from laptops, personal computers, iPods, and mobile phones to air conditioners and refrigerators. All contribute to the 20-50 million metric tons of global e-waste generated annually, growing an average 5% per annum.1 This estimated growth is largely due to the increasing rates of planned obsolescence for electronic goods (e.g. the average lifespan of a computer has shrunk from five to just two years).2 It is now rare for consumers to take broken electronics for repair; it’s often cheaper and easier to buy a replacement.
Hazardous chemicals in e-waste
It’s estimated that 95% of electronic waste is recyclable. However, if recycling is left unregulated, it can cause significant harm to human health as well as severe environmental pollution.3 Unregulated recycling centres strip the waste of valuable metals by burning or dissolving the plastic components, thereby releasing highly toxic and often carcinogenic chemicals contaminating the air, soil, and groundwater while posing threats to wildlife and human health. For more on China’s groundwater pollution and China’s cancer villages please see here and here.
“E-waste contains a witches brew of toxic substances”4such as those listed below and shown in the figure below.
- Lead – damages the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, kidney and reproductive system in humans. Mainly used in glass panels of monitors and in solder in circuit boards.
- Cadmium – is toxic with possible irreversible effects on human health particularly the kidneys and bones. It is able to bio-accumulate in the environment and has been found in dangerously high concentrations in rice from China. Cadmium is used in rechargeable batteries, semiconductor chips, chip resistors and infra-red detectors.
- Mercury – causes damage to various organs including the brain and kidneys, and the central nervous system particularly during early development. It is used in thermostats, sensors, relays, switches and flat panel displays.
- Hexavalent Chromium – is carcinogenic, and highly toxic to the environment. It is used as corrosion protection for galvanized steel.
- Barium – is thought to cause brain swelling, muscle weakness as well as damage to the heart, liver and spleen. It is used in the front panel of a CRT to protect users from radiation.
- Beryllium – is carcinogenic, and has been linked to lung cancer. It is used in computers in mother boards.
- Other substances such as platinum group metals, for example, are found in smart phones, iPads and other modern hand-held devices, but very little is known about their potential health and environmental impact, despite the fact they are evident in the environment. Traces of platinum group metals, for example, that are not normally found in significant quantities in the environment have been detected in water, soil, and even snails around recycling centres in Africa. 3
Developed nations exporting the problem to Asia
The majority of the world’s e-waste is still being generated in developed economies (although China is rapidly catching up, see table 1). However, as stated in a report by the Basel Action Network, “exporting this waste to less developed countries has historically been one way in which the industrialised world has avoided … expensive disposal and close public scrutiny at home.”4 The map below clearly shows the waste flows from developed economies into Asia. A pilot programme conducted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) which collected electronic scrap in San Jose, CA estimated it was ten times cheaper to ship CRT monitors to China than to recycle them in the U.S. Unsurprisingly around 90% of computers discarded by developed nations are dumped in developing countries such as China, India and Pakistan.
This situation is being partially addressed by public pressure and international laws such as the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. However, over the last few years the world has seen a new wave of trade in electronic waste, sent primarily to developing nations for refurbishment or recycling, a loophole in the convention. If left unchecked and unregulated, the “toxic effluent of the affluent will flood towards the world’s poorest countries where labour is cheap, and occupational and environmental protections are inadequate… burdening them with toxic exposure and environmental degradation.”4
Most of the recycling and refurbishment of the illegally imported e-waste in China for example is carried out in the informal sector where the lack of environmental, health and safety standards present serious risks to workers and the environment. This unregulated trade in hazardous e-waste allows the waste generators to externalise their costs, which in turn acts as a major disincentive to finding true solutions to this problem. That said, the pollution and uneven geographic spread of e-waste, represents a huge reputational risk to the electronic industry.
Creates huge reputational risk for electronic companies
Companies face reputational risk and potential brand damage from the inefficient management of e-waste. If a company’s brand name is found in illegal landfill sites this could be traced back to the company, leaving it open to litigation and negative press. For example, in 2011 Chinese environmental NGOs including the Institute of Environmental and Public Affairs (IPE) attacked Apple’s manufacturing suppliers (read our review here). They found that 27 plants failed to properly dispose of hazardous waste. It is this scrutiny from activists groups and other NGO’s which can create negative press damaging a company’s reputation (for more on this see here).
70% of global e-waste dumped in China
As one of the world’s largest exporters of EEE and with a rapidly growing domestic market, China is facing major e-waste problems – as a result of both its growing domestic generation and foreign imports.
In addition to the domestically generated e-waste, a remarkable amount of e-waste is being imported into the country for refurbishment and recycling. According to the United Nations University, China is now the largest e-waste dumping site in the world, receiving shipments from the US, Europe, Korea and Japan as well as other countries. This is despite the Chinese government banning the importation of e-waste in 2000.
A study by the European Commission in 2005 found that 47% of all e-waste destined for export was illegal shipments to Asia. In the US (who haven’t ratified the Basel Convention), it was estimated that 50-80% of e-waste collected was to be shipped to destinations such as China6. With recycling rates in the West expected to rise by 18% per year we can expect the illegal exports to countries like China to increase at a similar rate, unless more effective enforcement mechanisms are put in place4.
Despite the implementation of new regulations on customs control etc. which are highlighted below, e-waste is clearly still entering China through numerous channels6:
- Mixed shipments with scrap metal – importation of mixed scrap metal for recycling is legal in China, and shredded e-waste is often smuggled in these shipments at a ratio of around 10% and is difficult to separate.
- Transit through Hong Kong – Although China is a signatory of the Basel Convention, under the “One Country Two Systems” policy, China is only responsible for customs control in mainland China. Thus legislation in China does not apply in Hong Kong. Imports of e-waste and second-hand EEE into or through Hong Kong, is legal if an import licence is obtained in Hong Kong. It can then be shipped on to other countries including mainland China with no import/export permit.
- Transit through Vietnam – Exports of e-waste and second-hand EEE from the US and Japan, enters Vietnam through the international port at Haiphong, it then crosses the border into China at Dongxin, it is then taken to Guangzhou, where it is rebuilt before being shipped back to Vietnam. Although Vietnam has ratified the Basel Convention, it can be circumvented because the import of second-hand EEE for the purpose of re-export is allowed.
A recent Xinhua article reported that over 4,000 tonnes of illegally imported electronic waste was found in Jiangsu province, which resulted in 10 years of imprisonment for the importer.5 Are such incidences are likely just the tip of the iceberg?
Domestic action in China – regulation for recycling and management of e-waste
Recognising the environmental and social concerns surrounding domestic and illegally imported e-waste, the Chinese government has issued a number of environmental laws, regulations and standards etc. over the last 13 years, including ratifying the Basel Convention in 2001. These changes have exposed electronic companies to potential regulatory risks. Some of the most important regulation changes are listed below:
Unfortunately none of these regulations explicitly define specific collection and recycling targets, making them difficult to implement and according to the UN University, as of April 2013, the effectiveness of these regulations has not been evaluated.
Government and industry pilot e-waste recycling projects in China
In addition to developments in legislation, the government, producers and the recycling industries have brought in a number of nationwide e-waste pilot projects. These were established to identify the best treatment technologies, collection channels and finance schemes.
Move towards a domestic collection system and national treatment subsidy programme
It seems clear that e-waste legislation in China is moving towards the construction of a “domestic collection system and recycling infrastructure under a national treatment subsidy programme.” But to make this possible the following points need to be addressed:
- For the ban on the import of e-waste into China to be effective, substantial administrative reforms are needed in customs control. Including:
- Closing the Hong Kong loophole and strict enforcement of points of entry
- Dedicating more resources to investigating illegal shipment routes
- Addressing administrative confusion, currently no single government department fully supervises and implements policies and laws related to e-waste.
- Greater monitoring and enforcement of the ban on the informal recycling sector
- The establishment of explicit policy targets on the amount of e-waste to be collected and treated. This will aid local level implementation, as local planning of collection activities and treatment capacity is based on such baseline targets.
Ultimately it is the electronics industry and its short product life cycles that are the catalyst behind the e-waste problem. Product turnovers increase as life cycles diminish, especially when electronic companies continually change product lines. For example, Apple updates its iMac product line every eight months to stimulate a rapid product turnover. Furthermore, because of appliances irreplaceable batteries such as the Apple iPhone’s, there is a shift from reusing components to overall product upgrading. The 18th month phone contracts used mainly in the West, are another contributor to the increasing phone turnover rate.
Therefore as a long term solution, increasing the life cycle of electronic products is likely to have the greatest impact on reducing the high levels of e-waste. This would involve consumers and governments pressuring EEE companies to get them to target product durability and quality albeit at the consumers’ dissatisfaction of price increases and curbing our upgrade consumption habits.
1United Nations Environment Program, 2006, http://toxipedia.org/display/toxipedia/Electronic+Waste+(E-Waste)
2National Safety Council, Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report, 1999
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