By Isha Lodhi
At the video conference lecture on Thursday, 5th December, here in SEECS, Dr. Sunil Herat of Griffith University, Australia, who is also a UN consultant on Waste Management, talked about e-waste, how it is an enormous emerging global problem, and what third world countries can do to make this problem benefit them.
What is e-waste?
The most basic definition Dr. Heart gives to the term is “anything that has a battery or a plug”. E-waste is also called WEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic). Dr. Herat called the problem of safely disposing e-waste a “sleeping giant”. We may not see it now, but we are only a few decades away from when the treatment of e-waste becomes a major global issue.
Every year 20-50 million tons of e-waste is generated worldwide. 142,000 computers are discarded every day. The main reason the volume of e-waste is escalating yearly is the huge gap between the operation and functional life of electronic/electrical equipment. As Dr. Herat explained, a laptop may have an operational life of, let us say 10 years, but it is usually discarded after 4-5 years because of the need to constantly update technology.
Why is the disposal of e-waste such a big problem? What are the problems in its recycling?
One tone of discarded mobile phones contain 3.5kg of silver, 340g of gold, 130kg of copper. So, basically e-waste is practically an above-ground mine of rare metals like silver, antimony and indium. But, unfortunately e-waste also consists of cadmium, lead and mercury, which is why it is not that easy recycling it. Metals like mercury and lead are toxic and harmful to human and animal health. When e-waste is broken down, these chemicals leach into the environment and cases have been reported when the residents of an area had to get water from outside because their ground water was contaminated.
In developing countries, the most active sector involved in recycling e-waste is the informal sector. This means that most workers collecting e-waste do not use any precaution or safety health measures and are under risk of getting poisoned. Substandard methods of recycling, such as the burning of plastic to recover metal in components, are used that harm the environment. Then, there is the open dumping of non-valuable parts. There is lack of a well-established system for treatment and disposal of this waste in developing countries. Even if technology is imported into these countries, it will not work because the collection process is a major part of the recycling process and this step involves social factors that have to be taken in consideration.
Objectives of e-waste recycling
Recycling that is currently being done in third world countries by the informal sector is not upto standard (because of which collectors face health risks), is not environment friendly, is not efficient. The objectives of e-waste recycling are as follows:
è safe treatment
To treat e-waste using methods and technology that is not harmful to the environment and human health
è Sustainable business
The cost of recycling the waste using proper, green treatment processes should be low so that e-waste recycling can become a sustainable business and the private sector be encouraged to invest in it
What must be done to address the issue of e-waste?
New technology has to be created that replaces existing ones efficiently. We need to get rid of methods that make the use of metals like lead in manufacturing a product. For that, we need to find alternative processes that do not use metals like lead, cadmium, chromium hexavalent, mercury, etc and at the same time employ materials that can perform the same function as well as these metals do.
The design of electronic and electrical products must be green and they should have the capacity to be updated. This is a field the students of our university must consider working on, whether they are pursuing degrees in electrical, chemical, or environmental engineering.
Users must be encouraged, to repair and reuse their products. At present, ERR schemes are used in many countries that make the consumer responsible for their product throughout its life-cycle. Another way is to charge users for getting their product recycled so that they go for repair and reuse instead.
New technology that efficiently recycles e-waste, and profits the company investing in it, needs to be developed. The safe collection of e-waste needs to be ensured by encouraging the private sector and government to take part in recycling, and by passing legislation that penalizes the unsafe disposal and handling of e-waste.