Environmental Issues · Global Affairs · Global Health

What in the World Wednesday: E-Waste

e waste cover

Global Issue: E-Waste

The increase in usage of electronic equipment and other technologies across the world has led to an increase in e-waste, or the waste created from broken down and discarded electronic equipment. Much of this equipment contains valuable and recyclable elements such as precious or rare metals like copper or gold, and the process of recycling these metals has become an important source of income for many in developing countries such as Ghana and India. Problematically, the rudimentary techniques for extracting these valuable metals from the e-waste, like burning the waste to retain the metals inside, often means that the workers extracting the metals from the waste are exposed to dangerous and toxic substances. Many of these workers are young men and even children, making the exposure all the more worrying. However, the income provided by recycling these metals has become central to the livelihood of so many in these industrializing nations.  Additionally, up to 25% of the waste does end up being repurposed or reused in these countries.

Cold, hard facts: What is e-waste? How is it recycled? What does recycling mean for the people who do it? https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2015/ewaste/index.html

  • As consumption of technology increases, e-waste is also on the rise
  • E-waste is often exported overseas to other countries because this type of disposal is cheaper for tech companies than disposing of e-waste in an environmentally responsible way
  • In the countries where to e-waste is shipped to, many people gather to recycle and try to reclaim the valuable metals contained in so much e-waste, such as gold or copper
  • This is done through burning the e-waste or using dangerous chemicals and acids to destroy the waste and leave only the precious metals behind, exposing the recyclers to toxic chemicals and polluting the surrounding ground and water
  • However, much of the waste does find a new home being reused in the industrializing countries, and many citizens depend on e-waste recycling for their income in some way
  • In some areas, people have innovated new ways of recycling the waste and purchasing e-waste from the people who collect it from the dumps, providing the collectors with income but still managing to safely recycle or dispose of the e-waste
  • E-waste is a dangerous but lucrative trade, as there was an estimated $53 billion is plastics and valuable metals contained in e-waste in 2014

Some people say… E-waste is harmful! Stop the e-waste trade. Keep it and dispose of it here in the U.S. http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/30/world/asia/china-electronic-waste-e-waste/

Tl;dr: The toxins produced from improperly recycling e-waste are dangerous and polluting. Things like hydrochloric acid are used to recover the metals in the e-waste, leading to toxic run-off that contaminates the surrounding air, soil, and water. Local children test higher for levels of lead in their system, and this can stunt their development both physically and mentally. Local animals involved in the food chain are exposed to toxins like mercury, meaning that toxic exposure permeates many different levels for people in these areas. Rice and other crops planted in areas like this become toxic, contaminated with dangerous substances like cadmium. Overall, there are numerous negative health implications for people who deal with e-waste recycling.


Young man in Ghana burning e-waste to extract the valuable metals inside

Others say… Let the market run its course! E-waste can be recycled for profit and is an important source of income for many developing nations. https://qz.com/149632/the-indian-company-turning-e-waste-into-mounds-of-profit/

Tl;dr: E-waste recycling provides an important source of income and technology for people in developing countries. A significant portion of the e-waste that arrives in countries like Ghana, India, or China is reused or fixed and goes on to have a second life of usefulness, bringing technology to people that need it and would not have access to it otherwise. Additionally, the income from e-waste recycling is an important source of livelihood for many in poor areas of industrializing countries like Ghana or China. Eliminating the e-waste trade would cause many problems for the people of these countries. Western countries’ view of the e-waste trade is paternalistic and ignores the nuances of the situation.

A man in China searches through e-waste for metals and other salvagaeable materials for resale


So, what do you think? Is the e-waste trade a toxic danger that needs to be shut down? Or is it an important source of income and technology for developing countries?

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