Issues and Challenges

Handling Electronic Waste

Electronic devices that add ease and comfort to life have become an essential part of modern societies. However, due to damage, limited repair options, short lifespan and fast changing technologies, there is a turning high turn over of electronic gadgets into electronic waste upon the end of their functional life. Disposal of electronic waste is an emerging global health and environmental issue, as this waste has become the most rapidly growing segment of the municipal waste stream in the world.

Improper disposal and recycling of this electronic waste pose threatening effects on human health and surrounding environment. For example, informal recycling methods are used in several developing countries, where a significant proportion of electronic waste is openly dumped. According to Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (March 1989, Switzerland), electronic waste comes under the category of hazardous waste due to presence of toxic materials such as lead, mercury and brominated flame retardant. There is a need to develop and regulate the handling of electronic waste properly, especially in developing countries. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) also indicates that electronic waste is one of the largest and most complex waste streams in the world.
The United Nations (UN) 2021 report, “Children and Digital Dumpsites” finding is that each person on the planet will produce an average of about 7.6 kg electronic waste, meaning that a massive 57.4 million tons will be generated worldwide. Only 17.4% of this electronic waste, which contains a mixture of harmful substances and precious materials, will be recorded as being properly collected, treated and recycled. Different initiatives are being undertaken to cope with this growing concern. However, none of them can be fully effective without cognizance about electronic waste hazards among consumers. 
According to the report of World Health Organization (WHO) on June 15, 2021, effective and binding action is required to protect the millions of children, adolescents and expectant mothers worldwide whose health is made vulnerable by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic devices. WHO described that huge volume of electronic waste is putting lives and health at risk. Director-General of WHO has stated: “In the same way the world has rallied to protect the seas and their ecosystems from plastic and microplastic pollution, we need to rally to protect our most valuable resource ­— the health of our children — from the growing threat of e-waste.”
According to WHO, 12.9 million women are working in the informal waste sector, which potentially exposes them to toxic electronic waste and puts them and their unborn children at risk. Similarly, more than 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as 5 years of age, are actively engaged in the informal industrial sector, of which waste processing is a sub-sector. Children are often engaged by parents or caregivers in electronic waste recycling because their small hands are more dexterous than those of adults. Children exposed to electronic waste are particularly vulnerable to the toxic chemicals they contain due to their smaller size, less developed organs and rapid rate of growth and development. They absorb more pollutants relative to their size and are not fully able to metabolize or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies. Workers, aiming to recover valuable materials such as copper and gold, are at risk of exposure to over 1,000 harmful substances, including lead, mercury, nickel, brominated flame retardants and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Electronic waste also adversely effects climate change. All the devices ever produced have their carbon footprint and are contributing to global warming caused by human beings. These toxic elements not only effect the human health, they are also damaging agricultural areas significantly by contaminating the soil layers.
According to various research studies, there is a linkage between electronic waste in landfills and possible threats to human health, including serious respiratory issues. In scientific research conducted by Environmental Research Letters, researchers took air samples from a large electronic waste dismantling area in China. It showed that these products have a negative impact on human lungs. Additionally, many toxicants get released from electronic waste, and can bio-accumulate in the human body due to inhalation of contaminated air.
Presently, 15 to 20 percent of electronic waste is recycled. The need for increased recycling of these products is strong and urgent. Recycling the electronic waste saves space taken by landfills and prevents the environmental pollution caused by the toxins. Recycling also reduces the need for landfills in the first place. Goods made from recycled materials use less water, create less pollution, and utilize less energy.
There is a need of new vision for the production and consumption of electronic goods. It is easy for electronic waste to be framed as a post-consumer problem, but the issue includes the lifecycle of the devices that everyone uses in daily life. Manufacturers, designers, traders, investors, policy-makers, miners, raw material producers, consumers and others have a vital role to play in reducing electronic waste, retaining value within the system, extending the economic and physical life of an item, as well as its ability to be repaired, recycled and reused.
One of the most basic solutions of discarding electronic waste is recycling of electronic waste instead of dumping it. Especially in high temperature zones, the toxic chemicals released in the atmosphere cause air pollution, which leads to the inimical effects for living beings. Toxic materials which seep into groundwater may affect both sea and land animals. Changes in technology, such as Internet of Things (IoT) and Cloud Computing could hold the potential to “dematerialize” the electronics industry. The rise of service business models, better product tracking and takeback could lead to global circular value chains. If the sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could also lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide. HH

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