Technology is a wonderful thing. Occasionally, it has unfortunate byproducts. E-waste is one of them.
Today’s tech-addicted world produces about 50 tons of e-waste every year, according to the United Nations University, a UN think tank. That ranges from cellphones to major appliances – anything with a plug, cartridge or battery.
Industrialized countries generate part of this junk. Some of it is recycled. Some is dumped in developing and transition countries. In turn, developing and transition countries have been producing increasingly larger piles of e-waste since 2014.
StEP is the United Nations University’s (UNU) initiative to tackle the problem. Chatting with TECHtonics from Germany, UNU’s Ruediger Kuehr, Executive Secretary of the Solving the E-Waste Problem initiative, sheds more light on the issue.
Q. What is the scale of the e-waste problem?
KUEHR: It’s very hard to really estimate the scale as such because there are varying definitions as regards e-waste … around the world. For example, if we look to the American case, any kind of white goods are, for example, not included when it comes to numbers of e-waste. And white goods are the washing machines, dishwashers, etc. Whereas in, for example, Europe, all these kinds of applications are also involved when it comes to e-waste arising. Never the less, the United Nations University … has substantially worked on quantification of the e-waste topic. And our calculations, based on what is put on market and as regards the lifetime of certain equipment – it’s coming to the assumption that roughly 50 million tons are annually generated these days.
Q. Some developing countries have become dumping grounds for e-waste from the industrialized world. Why?
KUEHR: First of all, there is a hunger in the developing world also in order to have access to certain technologies. I mean, the people there are also interested to access the Internet. They also want to benefit from … having a mobile phone, reaching their family and relatives very easily and all these kinds of things. But usually they are not in the position to purchase easily brand new equipment. And this is why developing countries and transition countries especially have become a hub for shipment of equipment, which is reused, which is less costly, but still of interest for the market there. But unfortunately we’ve also found out that reuse as such is not necessarily always taking place.
There are many brokers active in this field using really a classification for reuse in order to ship only junk for which there is no market existing. And that it’s finally ending up as e-waste in these developing countries.
Q. Isn’t that cheating?
KUEHR: It’s definitely cheating because there’s a lot of money to be made in it, because in case you want to properly recycle your equipment in the U.S., under certain standardization, or in the European Union, for example, you have to pay for that. So every TV set, every computer costs even only cents or probably few dollars, but you have to pay for it. But in case you succeed in shipping [this] equipment to Africa, to Asia, to Latin America or elsewhere, you are making money out of it, also again only cents or dollars. But if you come to the right quantity, it’s certainly attractive.
And this is why there are a lot of people engaged in this field trying to make money of it without considering at all that they are harming the environment, that they are harming the health of workers, and by this also wasting a lot of valuable resources.
Q. So the countries are being tricked into becoming dumping grounds?
KUEHR: It is a little more complex here because the importing countries are also to a certain extent part of the problem because they have a certain interest also probably only in being the dumping ground at the end of the day because we have international legislation in place. Also the importing countries usually have to apply. But they are not enforced at all, so that they are also allowing these imports. But definitely there is more responsibility already on the exporting side.
Q. Which are the primary countries accepting the e-waste?
KUEHR: There are many dumping grounds around the world. And this is changing also from time to time. It depends on the political situation in the countries, etc. But flagships are definitely these larger countries where there is a lot of population where you can easily purchase a lot of the junk equipment, etc. So [at] the moment, if we are talking, for example, of the African east coast – it’s Nigeria, it’s Ghana, for example, but also other neighboring countries of these two. Then if we go to Asia, definitely, Bangladesh, India, but also China and other states like Pakistan [are] very prominent dumping grounds.
Q. Electronic devices tend to have metals in them like nickel, lead, and other toxins. Have there been reports of health issues related to the e-waste dumps in developing countries?
KUEHR: You can experience yourself if you ever have the chance to be in these countries and see the primitive recycling practices applied in the landfills in Ghana and elsewhere. You will easily get breathing problems, etc. And this is also what the workers, the kids, the youngsters, etc., are experiencing on a daily basis. They are aware that their eyes are burning, for example, that their fertility is also decreasing, etc. But they take it into account in order to [survive daily], basically.
But there are now a lot of analyses underway, also performed by the world health organizations and others in order to have a better understanding really on these health impacts … From an environmental point of view, we know how harmful these primitive recycling practices are through open burning, through acid baths, etc. But on the health side we still need further research in order to have robust grounds for taking appropriate counter-measures.
Q. Is there a way for these dumps to be used for development?
KUEHR: There are certainly ways in order to also integrate these kinds of things into what we call a Global Reverse Supply Chain. They should definitely no longer apply these primitive recycling practices through open burning, acid baths, etc.
But what developing countries are very good [at], and we are now talking only about the domestically-generated junk, not what is imported because [there’s] no question developing countries should not become dumping grounds of our junk at the end of the day. But for the domestically-generated one, it is worthwhile to consider that certain pre-assembly could be performed in developing countries. So collection is quite good usually there and they can easily de-manufacture equipment in order to have access to components, etc., and this is very well performed in these regions …
Once the proper separation has then taken place, there is no question that it should go to sites where it can be properly treated, especially the hazardous components, etc. And this is why we are talking about a global reverse supply chain because there are only few hubs, a handful of hubs, smelters around the world where it could be performed. And this is why we have to establish also a global cooperation … supported by national governments, allowing also certain components leaving the country again as long as it ensures that the workers are getting the right revenue out of the activity, so they are also monetarily benefiting from this because you are also then shifting away from the informal activities to a more formalized one.
Q.Shouldn’t the private sector be involved in this?
KUEHR: We will not be able to solve the e-waste problem with one stakeholder only alone. Neither the government nor the private sector will do so because they also again require the support from NGOs – non-governmental organizations, or researchers in order to get clearance on certain questions, etc. And this is really what StEP is about. StEP is solution to the e-waste problem. And this will only be possible if we succeed in getting all the relevant stakeholders on board – they are all agreeing on a possible way forward and all agreeing on possible solutions to the e-waste problem.
Q. How do you address the e-waste problem at the source?
KUEHR: Laws definitely help … Legislation to a certain extent, yes. But at the end of the day, it’s also a question of enforcement of legislation. And we have to address it on the ground, in the countries, etc. So what we are providing at the StEP initiative is high-level recommendations, basically. But then we are open enough in order to work on the ground in order to get these solutions developed, taking cultural aspects, psychological aspects, social aspects into consideration because all this illustrates always certain requirements for adjustment.
Q. How should industrialized countries deal with the problem?
KUEHR: We should not consider the e-waste problem as a problem which is basically for developing countries and for transition countries. We now see really that there is a lot happening in these countries and what should not happen. But at the end of the day, we are part of the problem.
And one of the biggest challenges we are facing in Northern America, in Europe and elsewhere, are simply low-collection rates of junk, e-waste junk we are producing every day. So here we really have to step in and secure that our e-waste at the end of the day is not disposed of in the normal household bin but returning to a proper collection site, recycling facilities, etc., because if it’s going to the right places, it will also not be shipped to Africa or elsewhere.