iPhone 5 today, e-waste tomorrow: our terrabyte sized tech trash

The way you dispose your technology today will decide the future of your health, well being and social equity in society tomorrow.


Every year our planet produces 20-50 million metric tons of electronic waste, only 15% of which gets recycled. 

We are the use and throw very quickly generation. With our evolving lifestyle and economy heavily dependent on technology, E-waste has become a repercussion to the way we live. Nowadays, major electronic brands are throwing out upgrades after upgrades, making a product obsolete in a matter of a year or so. Cellphones are replaced on an average of 22 months, PCs every 2 years, MP3 players every 2-3 years, and so on. Every year our planet produces 20-50 million metric tons of electronic waste, only 15% of which gets recycled.

With major electronic brands throwing out upgrades after upgrades in less than a year, we’re producing 20-50 million metric tons of electronics out of which only 15% of which gets recycled. Pic: Chris / Flickr CC

Each of these highly sophisticated components contain multiple metals and potentially toxic elements if not handled properly. Silver, gold, titanium, antimony, tin, copper, cadmium, and nickel are some elements, just to name a few. To get some perspective, if you are reading this on a computer monitor, 240 kgs of fossil fuels and about 21 kilos of chemicals along with over 1.5 tons of water were used just to manufacture it. Thankfully, not even 20% of which is needed for its daily operation. The energy required to recycle Aluminium alone would save 90% of the energy required to mine new aluminium.

All EEE goods should be considered from the cradle all the way to the grave. They enter our market as either in the form of production/ manufacturing in India or via import from suppliers from other countries. After this, there is the grey market to consider, where some assemblers directly sell to consumers (very predominant in the PC market) at a much cheaper rate. High amount of tax, duty and licensing fees make branded PCs more expensive than the assembled ones. This disparity makes quantifying the amount of e-waste generated difficult.

The next level of actors in the lifecycle are the official consumers of these electronics, and also the main generators of e-waste. This is the beginning of the black hole where consumers either discard their old devices for newer versions or turn them over for resale or reuse. Large amounts of e-waste enter india from foreign countries in the name of charity.

When your electronics are finally discarded, they are usually picked up by local scrap dealers or the local kabaddiwala. They pass through the hands of larger volume traders, where they are further processed into different types of waste, and are ultimately sold to the recycler/ dismantler. At this level, the readily recyclable/ re-useable parts such as glass, Copper wires, plastic are sold back to the raw material suppliers.

The next step in the recycling process is to recover valuable materials such as Gold, Silver, Aluminium, Copper etc. from the components. The residual waste is then thrown into a landfill or incinerated. Most of the labourers working in this sector are un educated as to the harmful effects of e-waste. E-waste workers suffer health effects through skin contact and inhalation, while the wider community are exposed to the contaminants through smoke, dust, drinking water and food.

E-waste contains valuable metals (Copper, Gold) as well as many potential environmental contaminants such  Lead, Antimony, Mercury, Cadmium, Nickel, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Burning E-waste may generate dioxins, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons (PHAHs), and hydrogen chloride.

E-waste informal sector workers toiling without any protective gear.
Pic: Chinky Shukla

Where is this mythical elephant graveyard one has to wonder? Most of the e-waste worldwide is shipped to Ghana, Nigeria, China, Pakistan and yes, India. Men, women and children in these countries are made to deconstruct e-waste and are exposed to its harmful toxins . Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata are the top 5 e-waste producing cities in India.

So what does a responsible consumer do? Care for your electronics, make them last longer and buy the ones that are more durable.

Donate your old electronics to charities, there’s always someone looking for a new mobile phone. If its broken and rendered useless, dispose it responsibly. There is an emerging market growing around e-waste recyclers and collectors in e-waste producing cities like Bangalore.

For all the e-waste we generate to keep up with the fast changing pace of technology, there is an equal opportunity to conserve by recycling our gadgets and reducing the toxins we release in the environment. After all, only for our good!

Pic: Chris / Flickr CC Attribution license

Also read:

Where computers go to die

Where to dump E-waste in Bangalore

 


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