Electronic waste refers to the electronic products that have outlived their purpose or usefulness by becoming unwanted, obsolete, or non-functioning. The life cycle of most electronic products is very short because of the speed with which technology continues to advance across the globe. Electronic components that are intended to be resold, recycled, salvaged, reused or disposed off are all considered a part of electronic waste.
Amount of E-Waste Generated Globally
Rapid advances in technology, the subsequent changes in preferred media forms, planned phasing out of older technologies, and falling prices of electronic equipment have led to the explosion of the number of electronic waste in nearly every part of the globe. Reports indicate that more than 50 million tons of e-waste is produced on annual basis (Sthiannopkao & Wong, 2012).
According to Kozlan (2010), the United States alone throws away more than 30 million computers every year while European countries dispose of more than 100 million phones every year. The country is the world leader in producing electronic waste while China comes at a close second, disposing about 2.3 million tons of e-waste every year. The Environmental Protection Agency argues that more than 83% of electronic waste eventually finds its way in landfills and incinerators.
Hazardous Characteristics of E-Waste
There are certain components of e-waste that have materials that render them hazardous to human health, although this largely depends on the density and the condition of the materials. Most of these materials have adverse health effects on animals, plants, soil types, and human beings. For instance, most of the electronic waste found in incinerators and landfills contain lead. Lead exposure can contribute to attention deficit especially in children, lower IQ, hyperactivity, and impaired cognitive function. Mercury exposure can lead to dermatitis, muscle weakness, and wasting, animal death, reduced fertility in animals, as well as slower growth and development in the animals.
The disposal and recycling of the materials poses significant risks to the communities around the landfills as well as the workers mandated with the recycling or disposal processes. The landfills have large amounts of lead cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and beryllium, which are all potentially harmful to not only the environment but human health as well (Sthiannopkao, & Wong, 2012). A lot of care has to be taken to ensure that the workers and members of the public are not exposed to these materials during the recycling efforts as well as guaranteeing that heavy metals do not leak from the incinerator ashes and the landfills.
Regulatory Requirements for E-Waste
In Europe, the EU WEEE Directive regulates the disposal and packaging of electronic waste products. The directive underwent major changes in 2007 and since then it has become well established. The main aim of the regulation is to ensure that the environmental impact of business activities in the European Union is mitigated. The directive targets to collect 40% by weight of the technological equipment that each OEM sells every year.
In Canada and the United States, there is a shift in regulatory policy towards ‘Producer Responsibility’. The approach places tremendous financial burden on the manufacturers of the product by ensuring that they pay for the recycling process. In addition, customer organizations across North America are constantly seeking written assurances from the manufacturers that their returns are not being sent to poor regions abroad to be recycled in developing nations.
South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan also have manufacturer responsibility policies. The countries usually demand that the manufacturers recycle 75% of their annual production. On the other hand, China is more concerned with preventing e-waste imports because recycling activity in the country, especially in poorer regions, is a major environmental and health problem.
Australia formed the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme in a bid to boost the recycling efforts of IT and related programs. The Australian government hopes that the NTCRS will have the capability of recycling about 80% of e-waste components by the year 2022.
Current Handling of E-Waste
Currently, the most predominant mode of handling e-waste around the world is recycling. The premise underlying recycling is the reclamation of essential or valuable components that were used in the creation of the obsolete technological equipment. Home based equipment including VCRs, mobile phones, televisions, computer components, and digital cameras have traces of gold, copper, and lead. The materials can be reclaimed through recycling and used for other purposes.
Efficacy of Current Regulation
Despite the popularity of recycling in controlling e-waste, the process encounters a number of challenges. For instance, it is often difficult to recycle the circuit boards from the e-waste. The circuit boards are valuable because they usually contain platinum, gold, silver, aluminum, iron, and copper. However, the conventional methods of recycling such as mechanical recycling decrease the recycling efficiency.
Since the proper disposal of the e-waste materials is paramount to health safety, newer and more efficient methods need to be implemented. For instance, reuse and refurbishing of the e-waste materials is seen as more effective in developing nations rather than the recycling of the e-waste materials. Reuse and refurbishing is more environmentally friendly than down cycling processes as well as a more socially conscious option.
Kozlan, M. (2010, Nov 2). What is ‘E-Waste’ & How Can I get Rid of It? Four Green Steps. Retrieved on 12/4/2016 from http://www.fourgreensteps.com/infozone/featured/features/what-is-e-waste-a-how-can-i-get-rid-of-it
Sthiannopkao, S., & Wong, M.H. (2012). Handling e-waste in developed and developing countries: Initiatives, practices, and consequences. Sci Total Environ.