The e-waste crisis continues to be the biggest obstacle to the development of a circular economy, and we are only just beginning to feel the cost of inaction.

CONTINUED FROM PART ONE, in which we contextualise the scope of the growing e-waste crisis.

Electronic waste (e-waste) is the world’s fastest-growing hazardous waste stream. Over 61 million tonnes of e-waste were generated worldwide last year. By the end of the decade, continued consumption is projected to generate to more than 74 million tonnes

This growing avalanche of discarded smart phones, computers, televisions, and other electronics presents a very real environmental, human, and economic danger if not handled correctly. Right now, the vast majority of e-waste is disposed of improperly. Not only this, but the consequences of improper disposal are multifaceted and devastating. The release of toxic pollutants into the environment and human populations have harrowing consequences. Not only this, but improper e-wast disposal also causes the loss of billions of dollars in unreclaimed rare earth metals. 

As part of our ongoing series on e-waste, we’ll explore the environmental, human, and economic cost of the crisis. 

The environmental cost of the e-waste crisis

According to a WHO study, just 17.4% of the 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste generated in 2019 was collected with the intention of being recycled. Due to corruption, lax regulations, and other factors, even less e-waste even made it to the recycling plant. 

Even the materials that are classified as having been recycled may end up contributing more to emissions than those headed straight for the landfill. Notorious “recycling” operations like Agbogbloshie in Ghana incinerate e-waste in order to recover raw materials using open fires. These open air fires are used to strip insulation material from copper wire to recover the “recycled” metal. They are also used to burn away the rubber on tires to recover trace quantities of steel. 

Burning or otherwise improperly disposing of e-waste can release “as many as 1000 different chemical substances” into the environment, according to the WHO. In 2020, e-waste disposal was responsible for the release of 580 million tonnes of carbon emissions. The problem is more involved than simple carbon emissions, however. 

Increasing consumption of electronic devices and increasing generation of e-waste depletes valuable resources (such as lithium, palladium, and copper), escalates energy demand, and inflicts environmental harm during raw material extraction. Raw earth materials that are improperly recycled can emit greenhouse gases and pollutants, but those that make their way to landfills also add heavy metals to the ground and water supply over time. 

The human cost of e-waste 

The long-term contributions of e-waste to our environmental collapse are clear. More importantly, however, there is also an unconscionable human price being paid right now. 

The improper disposal of e-waste is in of itself a multi-billion dollar industry. This industry predominantly employs people in the developing world. The WHO has identified some of these practices as including dumping e-waste on land or in water bodies, landfilling it along with regular waste, open burning it, breaking down devices in acid baths, stripping and shredding plastic coatings, and the manual disassembly of equipment. 

All of these activities obviously harm the environment. However, they are also highlighted by the WHO as being hazardous to the people who perform them. “They release toxic pollutants, contaminating the air, soil, dust, and water at recycling sites and in neighbouring communities,” notes the WHO report. It is added that pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable. This is due to their unique pathways of exposure and their developmental status to toxins and heavy metals like lead. 

E-waste exposure has been linked to adverse neonatal outcomes, as well as neurodevelopment, learning and behavioural issues. In later life, prolonged exposure to e-waste recycling and disposal has been tied to reduced lung and respiratory function. Incidences of asthma also increase across the board with prolonged exposure.

The economic cost of e-waste 

Humanity suffers incalculable losses every year due to the holistic damage of the climate crisis. It is a price our species will likely continue to pay for decades, if not centuries. The damage caused by the e-waste crisis is not solely dealt to the environment or population health, however. The data suggests that our current damaging and unsustainable approach isn’t even cost effective. 

Most electronics contain scarce, valuable metals. It’s true that each individual smartphone, server, hearing aid, or smart toaster might only contain a few milligrams of gold, silver, and platinum. However, in aggregate, the problem really starts to take shape. 

It’s estimated that the global e-waste stream contains $62.5 billion worth of recoverable materials annually. The majority of these materials are improperly disposed of, unsustainably recovered, or simply buried in a landfill. For context, this is three times more value than is generated each year by all the world’s silver mines. 

As argued by Guy Ryder, Under-Secretary-General for Policy at the UN, and Zhao Houlin, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union, the e-waste crisis represents “a golden opportunity.” 

“More than 120 countries have an annual GDP lower than the value of our growing pile of global e-waste. By harvesting this valuable resource, we will generate substantially less CO2 emissions when compared to mining the earth’s crust for fresh minerals. It makes sense too – there is 100 times more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than in a tonne of gold ore,”they note


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