Seven Important Facts About the Current Global E-Waste Crisis

By Veena Clay April 16, 2014

Over the past three decades, the frequent use of technological devices has skyrocketed, and so too has electronic device production. Stores are full of devices controlling everything from our daily agendas to our nightly security systems. The common use of digital devices has worked its way into every sector of society and continues to build on its primitive supercomputer foundations with increasingly intricate precision.

This proliferation of technology, and the devices that go along with it, also has its downside, however; namely, the perpetual stream of electronic waste left in its trail.

Today, the bulk of the world’s waste stream consists of the leftover remnants of a technological universe expanding at astronomical rates. Mobile phones, laptops, desktops, tablets and keyboards crowd limited space within landfills, driving poisonous content into soil, streams, rivers, lakes, oceans and air. All this, despite efforts to build widespread awareness urging consumer recycling and producer design assistance.

These factors have produced a global e-waste crisis — a worldwide critical point making headlines and capturing the attention of change makers on nearly every continent.

In essence, the global e-waste crisis has created a contemporary paradox: What should citizens concerned about the environmental and sociological effects of a rapidly growing electronic waste stream in an increasingly technology-dependant world do?

Here are the facts you should know about our current global e-waste crisis:

1. The global e-waste stream creates a large volume of toxic waste.

According to the EPA, in 2010, only 27% of the 2.44 million tons of e-waste was recycled in the U.S. More recent figures show that this number ballooned to 9.3 million tons in 2013, and recycling rates remain significantly low. Currently, the U.S. has the largest e-waste stream in the world. It is followed closely by China’s 7.3 million tons. Between these two countries, more e-waste is generated than any of the countries in the world.

At the heart of the problem is the toxic content of hazardous materials used to build these discarded electronic devices. Dangerous chemical pollutants, such as barium and phosphorus, and toxic metals like lead and cadmium often accompany the electronic recycling process. In addition, electronic waste that is not recycled can wind up in landfills or incinerators, releasing hazardous carcinogens and causing severely detrimental effects on soil, air and water supplies for nearby communities.

2. Significant health impacts accompany high e-waste streams.

Just as there are severe environmental consequences for both the recycling and disposal of e-waste devices, there are serious health impacts as well. For instance, the amounts of toxic waste emitted into the air by both formal and informal recycling methods can cause asthma, bronchitis and silicosis, a type of lung disease that results from inhalation of silica particles. In addition, inhalation of tin, lead and cadmium particles from phosphor can all cause significant lung, throat and breathing issues as well as cancer.

Some of the most informal methods of extracting precious metals from e-waste materials include the use of nitric and hydrochloric acid to strip the unwanted material away. Contact with such chemicals can cause permanent damage to eyes and skin. Since the process is usually done along the river banks of rural communities, it may also lead to poisoned drinking water. In addition, open burning, shredding and de-soldering can release dangerous carcinogens or cause severe organ, bone and fetal damage for e-waste workers involved in both formal and informal e-waste recycling.

3. Transport from developed countries to underdeveloped countries is currently under pressure and scrutiny.

One major issue in the global e-waste crisis is the dynamic export of e-waste material from developed countries like the U.S. and the European Union to underdeveloped countries and regions in Africa and Asia. The process is fraught with debate about the burden such exports place on the environments of poorer countries as well as on the health and well being of the citizens therein.

Because of regulations that are less strict than in most regions and countries, the bulk of the world’s e-waste is shipped to China, India and Kenya. As a result, China currently receives 70% to 80% of the world’s e-waste material, with a significant amount coming directly from the U.S. Less-developed regions in India and Africa are now seeing the detrimental effects of taking in the world’s e-waste, as environmental damage throughout these countries reaches crisis levels.

4. The Basel Convention is international legislation controlling the movement of e-waste around the world.

The Basel Convention, created in Basel, Switzerland, in early 1989, is an international treaty that established worldwide protocols for the transport of hazardous waste, including e-waste, between countries. It also contains provision for regulating the manufacturing of electronic devices with an eye toward adding recycling and reuse to the end-of life processes for electronic devices.

So far, 181 countries have signed and ratified the convention. America, Haiti and Afghanistan are the only countries that have yet to ratify, although they have signed this important worldwide treaty.

5. Several countries are capitalizing from the extraction of precious metals from e-waste streams.

Precious metals such as gold, silver and palladium can be extracted from electronic waste devices. In fact, according to the EPA, recycling just 1 million cell phones could yield 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium and 20,000 pounds of copper. In addition, rare earth minerals, often used to create powerful magnets and found in a plethora of industrial high-end technologies, can be found in recycled electronics.

Some countries are capitalizing on the extraction of high-demand metals from recycled electronics, despite the environmental and health risks involved. For instance, in the Guiyu in the Shantou region of China, informal recyclers use chemicals and primitive burning and de-soldering methods on tons of electronic waste to obtain gold and silver that can then be sold for a profit, but the region is well known for its health hazards and dangerous environmental conditions.

6. Prevention at the design stage is a current trend in addressing the current global e-waste crisis.

Governments, businesses and research institution are now looking at ways that the design of electronic devices can contribute to better solutions for the global e-waste crisis. This means urging producers to invest in design choices that assist with end-of-life recycling methods. This trend places responsibility on producers to ensure that e-waste streams do not continue to skyrocket past the world’s ability to properly recycle electronic waste.

7. Future projections predict even greater streams of e-waste.

Production of electronic devices is expected to soar by 8% in coming years, indefinitely. According to the United Nation’s Step Initiative, the amount of e-waste is expected to climb 33% higher by 2017 compared to now. This means that, unless the world finds better solutions to the global e-waste crisis fast, more e-waste could end up in unregulated landmines, causing even further damage to the natural environment and to the health and well being of the world’s inhabitants.