Queues like the one in front of the Apple Sydney store are commonplace every time the electronic magnate releases the latest version of any of their devices. It’s part of what we do. We consume, we use, we boast, we play, we talk, we read, we watch, we write, we queue again for a slighter better model and we dispose of the “older”, out-of-dated version only after approximately 18 months of having queued for the latest gadget (that’s the approximate lifespan of the electronic devices we consume today).
And then they become e-waste
Currently, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates the annual production of e-waste to be approximately 50 million tonnes, of which only 10 per cent is recycled.
E-waste is composed of a range of everyday goods -computers, office electronic equipment, entertainment devices, electronics, mobile phones, television sets and refrigerators – that are composed of an array of dangerous metals and chemicals such as antimony trioxide, polybrominated flame retardants, selenium, cadmium and mercury, all of them highly hazardous to both the environment and human health. Besides desktop computers often contain large amounts of lead and may contain small amounts of valuable metals such as gold and copper.
An estimated 75 per cent of e-waste generated in the EU, equivalent to eight million tonnes a year, is unaccounted for and exported illegally to African countries, which lack the infrastructure to recycle e-waste safely. The e-waste that lands in countries like Ghana and Nigeria is processed manually in scrapyards, generally by young adults or even children. Copper wires are bundled and set alight to remove flame-resistant coatings. CRT monitors smashed with hammers. Leftover parts dumped in landfills to be burnt. The result? Toxic dioxins and plumes of lead with serious health consequences for those involved in this kind of work: reproductive and developmental problems, damaged immune, nervous and blood systems, kidney damage and impaired brain development in children.
19 years old Zikeri works in the Agbogbloshie rubbish dump, in Ghanna, burning internal computer parts to to gather copper, lead and aluminium for approximately 3 Cedis a day (1,5 Euros). Although he is aware of the toxic effects of the smoke on his skin, he doesn’t know the long term consequences his work has on his health.
Greenpeace exposed other e-waste illegal dumping grounds in China and India as early as 2005. Poisoning the poor, an initial enquiry into illegal e-waste trade, lead them to uncover and film the conditions in which workers in e-waste dumps operate. Some of the samples their medical team took, contained toxic metals including lead in quantities as much as one hundred times above background levels. One sample also contained a high level of chlorinated dioxins, known to promote cancer.
What’s the solution?
Greenpeace is pressuring the biggest electronic companies to phase out toxic chemicals and introduce global recycling schemes. Some companies are already working towards taking responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products but others still refuse to accept that they are responsible for recycling their old products.
Education is important. We need to become aware and put pressure on manufacturers to develop and design clean products with longer life-spans, that are safe and easy to repair, upgrade and recycle and will not expose workers and the environment to hazardous chemicals.