The Global WEEE Problem

As humanity entered the 21st century we also entered what is now known as the age of technology. The first piece of technology invented by man was the wheel, since then we have moved onto far more technologically advanced and complicated things such as computers, gaming consoles, phones etc.

The world is gripped with technology fever waiting for the next big thing. As we do wait for the next big thing, then buy it we are forgetting about what we leave behind. Hundreds of new technological products come out at least every year and with that hundreds more are forgotten and binned. Most new products that come out are just a redesigned model of what you already have. How companies deal with making you buy something you already have is planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is basically designing a product to be obsolete by a certain period of time.

As you may have noticed most new products that come out will do exactly the same thing as what you already have plus one more thing. It could have a built in camera, added bluetooth, a facebook app  anything like that. It will have an added bonus making what you already have obsolete, outdated and rubbish.

Due to the pace of rapidly changing technology and planned obsolescence there has been a greater surplus of electronic waste worldwide. Electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) or whatever you want to call it, is a huge and overlooked problem. It is estimated that 50 million tons of e-waste is generated every year worldwide and only 15-20% is recycled.

E-waste is a highly pressing problem due to the hazardous chemicals within the product. Uncontrolled burning, disassembly and disposal poses many threats to the environment such as ground water contamination, atmospheric pollution, water pollution, health problems to those directly and indirectly dealing with the waste. The people affected are men, women and sadly children too.

The waste, instead of being taken care of within the area it was produced is shipped off to developing countries like China, Bangladesh, Ghana, Pakistan and India because ‘it’s cheaper’. Due to the lack of safety measures and safe methods to dispose the waste sent to them. The people in those countries then resort to more harmful and wasteful methods. One method is where they basically just throw the e-waste onto an open fire to melt the plastic and burn away invaluable metals. This method releases carcinogens and neurotoxins into the air contributing to a lingering toxic smog over the area. The waste from the fire is then disposed of into drains and waterways affecting the ocean and local water supplies.

The recycling of e-waste in developing countries is now consolidating but not at a fast enough pace to catch up with the amount of waste being produced. Part of the problem is countries like the United States sending their waste to other countries to deal with. In June 2008 a container of e-waste from Port of Oakland U.S on its way to Sanshui district, China was intercepted by Greenpeace in Hong Kong. Press reports from India, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria have voiced their concern over e-waste export but other then that, there has been no mention of this problem.

There are already a few consumer awareness groups set up mostly in the U.S. to combat this but we need it on a global scale. Just about all e-waste contain reusable metals and by dismantling the waste in a safe manner conserves the affect it has on water and air pollution when disposed in a hazardous method. Other then that it also reduces the amount of greenhouse gases and crude oil needed to manufacture new products from scratch.

Hazardous chemicals found in e-waste:

  • Americium- Smoke Alarms
  • Mercury- Fluorescent tubes, pinball machine tilt switches, mechanical doorbells, thermostats
  • Sulphur- Lead-acid batteries
  • Cadmium- Light sensitive resistors, corrosion resistant alloys for marine/aviation environments, nickel-cadmium batteries
  • Lead- Lead acid batteries, CRT (Cathode ray tubes, found in TV screens, computer monitors)
  • Polyvinyl chloride- Vinyl products, makes PVC flexible

The Basel Action Network is the only global organisation dedicated to combating the global environmental injustice and economic inefficiency of the toxic trade and its impacts. For more information on e-waste and confronting this issue go to: www.ban.org

For a related post click the following link: The Price We Pay For a Developed World

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4 comments
  1. kerstoid said:

    This is horrifying. What will it take for people in the developed world to become aware and change their actions? I’m a teacher of a course dedicated to social conscience and I just purchased a relegated an “old” iPod to the dump last month. Obviously, cutting down on consumption is the best way to solve the problem, but if we have e-waste to dispose of, what is the most environmentally friendly way to do so? What do you recommend?

    • azhou10 said:

      Hello Kerstoid…
      Honestly i just recommend reuse, recycle and if its broken, fix it. There are places where you can dispose of electronic products safely but they depend on country to country, I know Apple has recycling programs for their old products where they take all old/broken Apple products for safe disposal but those programs are only available in certain countries. Australia has drop off points where you can take certain things like batteries, old phones etc. for safe disposal. Also due to all the hassle entailed by electronic products in general just buy green, environmentally friendly products that don’t use hazardous chemicals. There are products out there you just have to find them.

  2. kazza said:

    To be honest, naming the electronic waste “WEEE” makes it sound like a total joke…

  3. Npong Balikawu Francis said:

    fantastic piece, you have touched almost everything including fascinating picture, horrible scenes

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