E-waste is simply any discarded electrically powered device. It will soon extend to new areas like clothing, footwear, and IoT. China generated more than half – 6.7 million tonnes, up 107% in five years and the UNU urges a clampdown on improper recycling and disposal to conserve resources and to avoid serious health and environment threats.
E-waste can and does end up in landfill and areas not suited for its often-toxic contents. It is because e-waste is cheaper to throw away than reduce, reuse, and recycle. Australians each produce about two tonnes of waste per annum, but seem to have an aversion to separating their 15.2kg of e-waste from rubbish and taking the effort to go to local government recycling stations.
The UNU says a holistic approach must be taken to waste management, considering many factors, such as a country’s socio-economic development, governance structures, geography, trade links, infrastructure, psychological considerations that reflect consumer attitudes, legal frameworks, collection mechanisms, recycling and recovery facilities, environmental awareness and health and safety standards.
UNU says that images in the 2000s of Asian waifs playing in e-waste — “The high-tech trashing of Asia” — may have disappeared as countries introduce specific legislation to enforce sound environmental treatment of e-waste. Yet, only a minority of countries have national and regional e-waste legislation in force.
The international community has been working on e-waste issues for several years, particularly within the framework of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. But that does not necessarily stop e-waste in Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong, China, and Cambodia. The 11 national jurisdictions comprise nearly 30% of the world’s population – only five have enacted e-waste legislation.
UNU says most e-waste legislation is based on the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) where manufacturers have a major responsibility to organise, finance, and operate an e-waste take-back system, either individually or collectively, through Producer Responsibility Organisation (PROS) but where that falls over, say in Australia with so many generic products, retailers or others must take over. The problem is that this all costs money and consumers are cost sensitive.
In Australia, Techcollect, managed by the Australia and New Zealand Recycling Platform (ANZRP), operates an e-waste programme funded by top technology companies. It takes personal and laptop computers and all cables, tablets, notebooks, and palmtops, computer monitors and parts (e.g. internal hard drives and CD drives), computer peripherals and accessories (e.g. mice, keyboards, web cameras, USBs, and modems) printers, faxes, scanners, and multi-functional devices, and all televisions.
Even though Australia produces about 500,000 tonnes of e-waste, only just over 18,000 tonnes was collected in 2014. But hope for further momentum is there. ANZRP says e-waste collection and processing comes at a price per kg and it is doing as much as it can with the resources it has. The only way to do more is via tougher legislation and expanding the income — possibly from consumers — to collect and manage e-waste.
UNU puts the increase in electrical devices (EEE) and, therefore, e-waste down to:
- More gadgets: Innovation in technology is driving the introduction of new products, particularly in the portable electronics category, such as tablets and wearables like smart watches.
- More consumers: In the East and Southeast Asian region, there are industrialising countries with growing populations, but also rapidly expanding middle classes able to afford more gadgets.
- Decreasing usage time: The usage time of gadgets has decreased; this is not only due to rapidly advancing technology that makes older products obsolete due to hardware incompatibility (e.g., flash drives replacing floppy disks) and software requirements (e.g., minimum requirements for personal computers to run operating software and other applications) but also soft factors such as product fashion. E-waste grows as more devices are replaced more rapidly.
- Imports: Import of EEE provides greater availability of products, both new and second-hand, which also increases e-waste as they reach their end of life.
UNU also has found that the reuse and recovery of resources in no way covers the cost, often making a loss due to labour issues. It says environmentally unsound practices happen because:
- Lack of awareness: End users do not know that they should dispose of their obsolete equipment separately or how or where to dispose of their e-waste. Additionally, informal e-waste recyclers often lack the knowledge about the hazards of unsound practices;
- Lack of incentives: Users choose to ignore collection and/or recycling systems if they need to pay for them;
- Lack of convenience: Even if disposal through existing systems does not incur a fee, users may choose not to dispose of their e-waste in the proper channels if it is inconvenient or requires their time and effort;
- Absence of suitable sites: There may be a lack of proper locations for hazardous waste disposal where residues from e-waste recycling can be sent; and
- Weak governance and lax enforcement: A country with inadequate management or enforcement of e-waste legislation may result in rampant non-compliance.
The 109-page report is compelling reading if one wants to know the stance of each Asian country but essentially it concludes that people are increasingly exposed to hazardous substances resulting in impacts on human and environmental health and social and economic impacts for worker families and communities.