Our civilization, Carl Sagan noted, “profoundly depends on science and technology.” He also noted that “almost no one understands science and technology.” This duality certainly applies to the new and extraordinary technology which arrives in our lives almost daily. But what are the real effects?
We love new technology changing the way we live and work to be simpler and more efficient. But whether these advances do make life simpler, or more complex, seems to depend on one’s perspective.
Because, yes, there are challenges to be met when addressing technological advances. And globally, it’s not a potential concern; it’s a real one, in the here and now. The challenge of the technological age piling up on us is that we’re still the same old throwaway society when it comes to our brand new technological artefacts.
That challenge is e-waste. More specifically, how it is to be managed and disposed of while adhering to rigorous protocols to eliminate, or at least lessen, the detrimental effects on the environment and public health.
E-waste (electrical and electronic waste), in its simplest definition, is any discarded household or business device requiring electrical components or batteries to function. Understandably, there’s a long list of items that fit this description; everything from mobile phones, computers, refrigerators to, yes, that electric toothbrush.
Out of sight
So what’s the problem, some might ask, in simply discarding such items? The problems are many. Most of these items end up in landfills, are incinerated, or are exported to other countries for dismantling. In fact, up until 2017, China was accepting approximately seventy percent of global e-waste.
The ban imposed on e-waste was a result of China’s concern for the environment, after which exporters in North America and Europe began shipping to Southeast Asia. There too, restrictions have been placed on e-waste imports because of the sheer volume of tonnage arriving at ports, much of it illegally.
There’s no argument that substantial amounts of valuable materials and elements that can be recycled are to be found in e-waste. Cobalt, copper, gold, lithium and silver all turn up. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “One metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the United States.”
And according to a 2017 report by the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), established by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), United Nations University (UNU) and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), an estimated $55 billion in valuable materials was discarded in 2016 as e-waste, just twenty percent of which was recycled. Much of the remaining eighty percent ends up in landfills.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the total municipal solid waste stream sent to landfills in 2017 was close to 140 million tons. Recycling of e-waste would negate the need to send this waste to filled-to-capacity landfills.
Because of the rate at which new technologies are incorporated into electronic equipment, consumers find that what was once a ‘new’ technology purchase (and is still a useful one) is now obsolete, so the drive is to purchase an upgraded smarter device, meaning that an old one is traded in or thrown out long before it has reached its lifespan. The average cell phone is replaced every two years.
Manufacturers trying to keep up with consumer demand for ever more sophisticated products are experiencing a shortage of raw materials such as cobalt, gold, and platinum. So recycling and reusing such scarce elements from e-waste, a process referred to as urban mining, is a viable option from both an economical and environmental perspective.
On the negative side, electronic devices employ numerous toxic metals including cadmium, lead, mercury and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), for example, which pose an environmental threat if not properly disposed of, seeping into groundwater or often being released into the atmosphere through incineration.
Health is also at risk in humans exposed to these toxic pollutants during dismantling, sorting, and washing. Some of the numerous health issues are inflammation, cardiovascular disease, DNA damage, and cancer.
Absence of laws
Companies engaged in the manufacturing sector can assist in addressing this predominant challenge of e-waste and derive benefits while doing so.
In the United States, e-waste laws vary by state, with the EPA indicating that twenty-five states impose recycling laws that broadly control how e-waste is managed. Although many states still don’t have this recycling legislation, there are benefits to voluntarily recycling e-waste as a business owner.
Recycling e-waste such as faxes, photocopiers, and computers, for example, enables the processing and extraction of the aforementioned scarce earth minerals, which can be recycled and repurposed reducing the need for mining, which in turn, equates to less environmental and health repercussions.
Recycling can also aid in stimulating the economy by creating jobs. A study by the Coalition for American Electronic Recycling (CAER), reports that restrictions imposed on the export of e-waste abroad could create 42,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, with more than $1 billion in payrolls.
E-waste law in Canada
In Canada, e-waste legislation occurs at the provincial level with regulations centred around extended producer responsibility (EPR), which serves to hold manufacturers responsible for their products’ life cycle, including the cost of recycling and safe disposal.
Manufacturers are encouraged to design safer products with environmental and health considerations in mind. At the federal level, the role is one in which provincial harmonization is encouraged as well as the promotion of these established standards.
Established in 2003, Electronics Product Stewardship Canada is an industry leader in the promotion of a national program and works with provinces and territories to develop e-waste stewardship programs.
Companies need to be aware of their responsibilities with respect to the e-waste challenge. For example, IT assets such as PCs, laptops, photocopiers, projectors, shredders and fax machines, may be refurbished for reuse or donated to charitable organizations. Some companies may opt to set up their own collection and disposal system and return collected e-waste to the manufacturer directly and safely.
It’s essential for company management to create awareness among employees about responsible actions for e-waste disposal and the need to reduce every department’s environmental impact through diligence and being proactive rather than reactive.
Also to be considered is ensuring that electronic equipment is RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) compliant, which restricts the use of ten hazardous materials – such as cadmium, lead, mercury and benzyl butyl phthalate – sometimes used in electronic and electrical products.
The manufacturer’s role
Manufacturers of electronic equipment have a significant role to play considering the scarcity of natural elements utilized in electronics manufacturing, and need to build products responsibly with sustainable materials such as recycled plastic, tin, copper and gold – a supply chain shift from a linear to a circular one.
These manufacturers have to consider the environment and public health in their design, materials and manufacturing – or re-manufacturing – processes. Remanufacturing refers to returning a product to a “like-new” state using a combination of reused, repurposed, repaired and new parts, and green design can also be realized when manufacturers employ take-back policies and become responsible for the recycling of their own end-of-life products.
What needs to be realized is that the infrastructure currently in place for handling e-waste is significantly lacking in terms of handling the substantial growth and technological innovations in the electronics industry. We should also do our part by being responsible consumers and adopting an awareness of our consumption habits. The well-being of this planet rests in each and everyone’s hands.