Dealing with e-waste.

Dealing with the real world waste of the digital age has become a serious pollution problem.

Consumer electronics are clogging landfills around the world as once state-of-the-art devices rapidly become obsolete. 

In developed countries, the average lifespan of a personal computer dropped from six years in 1997 to just two in 2005.

An armada of flat-screen, high-definition TVs has replaced still-functioning CRT models simply because watching movies in HD is so much more fun.

Computer waste are left along a river bank at Yaocuowei village, China. Electonic waste contains 1,000 different substances such as lead, cadmium, chromium, and mercury—heavy metals which are highly toxic

Greenpeace estimates that 20 to 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated every year. If all the discarded computers, mobile phones, and other electronic gadgets were put into freight containers on a train, it would stretch around the world. E-waste is five percent of waste worldwide, they assume, nearly the same amount as plastic packaginE-waste, however, is a lot more dangerous than plastics. Computers and television sets contain toxic materials like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, or beryllium used in conductors, batteries, or microchips. 

In the United States, more than 70 percent of old computers and 80 percent of television sets end up in landfills, reports the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and so these toxins seep into the ground, poisoning groundwater and soil.

In theory, recycling those devices instead of discarding them would recover considerable amounts of gold, silver, or other metals with resale value. 

In practice, however, recycling in developed countries is expensive and subject to strict health and environmental regulations.  

So the rich world has begun shipping hazardous e-waste to the developing world, where health and safety laws are laxer and recycling is cheaper.

Cities like Accra in Ghana, Guiyu in China, or Bangalore in India have became e-waste dumping grounds. “There is a stream of illegal e-waste going to these countries”, says Paul de Jong, director of the Dutch Ewaste Foundation.

 This waste is not recycled in modern facilities that separate reusable computer or TV components. The sector is largely informal, the recyclers mostly slum dwellers, and the methods crude and unsafe.

The recyclers don’t have the knowledge or the tools with which to salvage specific components.

Instead, they go after saleable metals, like copper wire. To extract these, they burn cables and plastic housings until they melt and expose the valuable metals. 

This informal processing generates clouds of toxic smoke which cause serious health and pollution problems. Leftover glass and plastics are another hazard which contributes to environmental problems like groundwater contamination and atmospheric pollution. 

Taking a Stand
The first effort to combat the export of toxic waste was made in 1989. The Basel Convention required developed nations to notify developing nations of incoming hazardous trash shipments. Since 2006, the focus has been put on the issue of electronic waste.  

But the Convention is not legally binding, and a 1995 Basel Ban on exporting hazardous waste has never come into force. Trash exports are still going.

 Consequently some organisations in developing nations have started to take the initiative.

In August 2008, the NGO Computers for Schools Kenya (CFSK) opened East Africa’s first e-waste management and recycling plant in the city of Embakasi, to dismantle and separate electronic waste. 

Instead of simply torching e-waste to get at valuable metals, workers at the plant use are properly equipped and educated, and use safe recycling machinery.

Gloves, goggles, and dust masks minimize the health risks. Metal and plastic parts are sold to local recyclers. Extracted components from circuit boards are stored for reuse. 

“The management plan has a very safe working environment,” CFSK CEO Tom Musili said in a statement at the launch of the plant. “We have started in a small way, but eventually we will handle the e-waste from the whole East Africa region!”

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About dbda
dbda is a corporate social responsibility consultancy embracing education and safety in the community. We are privileged to work with a large number of blue chip corporate clients, Government organisations, charitable bodies, Institutes and local authorities. We also have a network of schools, professional bodies, associations, universities and partners, with whom we regularly work in collaboration.

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