E-Waste; The Problems Associated with Electronic Waste

E-Waste; The Problems Associated with Electronic Waste



1.0 Introduction

Electrical and electronic product innovations have played a fundamental role in enhancing consumers’ pursuit for utility maximisation in the consumption process. For example, electronic innovations have made it possible for consumers to stay connected globally (Heacock et al. 2016). In spite of these benefits associated with electrical and electronic innovation, the rate at which electronic waste (e-waste) is being generated is alarming. E-waste generally refers to discarded electrical and electronic products (Dickerson & Kisling 2009). The high rate of e-waste generation and the prevalence of ineffective e-waste management practices have led to emergence of different problems. The emergent problems are not limited to the developed countries, which are largely responsible for electronic product innovations, but also affect the developing countries.  For example, according to Concept Management Limited (2016), e-waste ranks amongst the fastest growing types of wastes in the UK. Thus, e-waste is a global problem. Therefore, the need to dealing with the problems posed by e-waste should not be underestimated.

1.1 Background

According to Seeberger et al. (2016), it is estimated that approximately 23% of the total e-waste generated in the developed economies is exported to the less developed and developing economies for recycling by the countries informal sectors, which are not regulated. For example, imported waste from the United States to China topped the list of imports from the US over the past decade (Kirby & Lora-Wainwright 2015). The problem of e-waste in the developing and less developed countries is more complex compared to the developed economies. This arises from the fact that the less developed and developing economies lack well designed environmental and occupational control mechanisms (Seeberger et al. 2016).  Nevertheless, the problems posed by e-waste are related.

1.2 Aim and scope

The report aims to examine the problem associated with electronic waste. The report specifically focuses on the environmental, health and economic problems. The report further provides recommendations on how to deal with the problem.

2.0 Findings

2.1 Health problems

E-waste generates different types of toxicants which pose a significant health risk if disposed into the environment (Chen et al. 2011). The sources of health risks associated with e-waste problem vary. For example, a survey conducted in 2014 by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) affirms that monitoring of toxicant exposure amongst recyclers within recycling facilities in the US is inadequate (Chen et al. 2011). Moreover, households living in close proximity to e-waste landfills such as informal settlements close to landfill sites have a high risk of experiencing health problems. The health risk of e-waste is not only limited to direct exposure. On the contrary, health risk of e-waste also arises from indirect sources. For example, e-waste landfills may emit toxicants which might contaminate ground water and locally produced food products (Borthakur 2016).  Moreover, the process of recycling such as shredding e-wastes such as plastics and metals may release dust into the atmosphere.  A review conducted by Chen et al. (2011)  showed that e-waste causes significant thyroid hormone disruption, reduced lung function, adverse pregnancy outcomes, reduced weight and height amongst children  and impaired neurological development such as cognitive function (Seeberger et al. 2016). Chen et al. (2011) emphasise that toxicants generated from e-waste also lea to increase in cases of cancer, respiratory and neurological disorders.  

The health challenge posed by e-waste is likely to increase into the future if the requisite steps are not taken into consideration. One of the factors likely to increase the health risk posed by e-waste entails change in the types of toxicants inherent in the materials used to develop electronic and electrical products. Asampong et al. (2015) emphasises that ‘electronic devices are individually designed and the toxicants they contain vary from one device to another and from one generation to the next’ (p. 1066). This aspect calls for integration of directives that require electrical and electronic product manufacturers to reduce the amount of toxicants in materials used to produce their products.

In addition to the above health risks, the process of recycling e-waste especially in the informal sectors in the developing countries exposes recyclers to injuries.  This assertion is supported by findings of a study involving e-waste recyclers in the Ghanaian informal sector. The study showed that the process of recycling involves different activities such as collecting, dismantling, and incineration of e-waste in order to recover the valuable material in the e-waste. The recyclers use crude tools such as hammers in dismantling e-waste, which increases the risk of injury (Asampong et al. 2015).

2.2 Environmental problems

E-waste poses a significant environmental hazard. One of the notable environmental impacts entails environmental pollution which originates from air the e-waste disposal sites and the recycling process (Borthakur 2016). Ineffective e-waste management practices have led to emergence of landfills across the globe, which are a major source of air pollution. For example, recycling activities in that occur in the landfills such as selection of e-waste products generate dust (Borthakur 2016). According to Robinson (2009), dust from landfills may contain e-waste contaminants that spread into the atmosphere through dust.  Moreover, the process of recycling and treating e-waste for example by burning increases the rate of air pollution. This aspect is underlined by increase in the rate of open-air burning of e-waste in an effort to recover valuable e-waste materials such as copper wires. In addition to incineration, some e-waste products such as freezers, air-conditioning units and refrigerator contain greenhouse gases such as chlorofluorocarbons which increase the rate of ozone depletion (Chen et al. 2011). Ozone depletion poses a significant environmental challenge because of increase in the rate of climate change.

E-waste is also a major source of soil and water pollution. Soil pollution largely occurs in e-waste landfills. For example, disposal of e-waste products in the landfills increase the rate of soil acidification. Conversely, ground and surface water pollution may also occur in sites where e-waste is disposed.  This aspect is well illustrated by increase in water shortage in Guiyu, Guangdong province, China as a result of water pollution from neighbouring e-waste recycling sites (Guo et al. 2009). Water pollution may not only affect humans but also aquatic life. For example, dissolution of toxicants in surface and ground water may contaminate aquatic systems

2.3 Financial problems

E-waste causes significant financial problems. Environmental pollution arising from e-waste disrupts different economic activities in the agriculture sector. For example, air, soil and water pollution affects sustainability of the agricultural sector. Thus, production of different food products is negatively affected which in turn affects the livelihood of different households. For example, reduction in production of food products negatively impacts the livelihood of different individuals in different points of the food production supply chain (Environmental Agency 2001).  

 In addition to the above aspects, the analysis shows that e-waste is associated with significant negative health impact amongst individuals either directly or indirectly. Individuals affected by e-waste incur a substantial financial cost in seeking treatment. Due to the high cost of health care, a significant number of individuals affected by e-waste health problems in the developing economies do not seek health care services from hospitals. On the contrary, they rely on contemporary forms of treatment. According to Asampong et al. (2015), a significant proportion of individuals involved in informal recycling processes are from poor informal settlements. Thus, they cannot readily afford effective treatment.  This aspect is underlined by a study on the financial impact of e-waste on individuals working in landfills at Agbogbloshie, Ghana’s largest e-waste landfill. The study showed that most individuals affected by e-waste seek treatment from traditional sources.

3.0 Recommendations

            To deal with the problems posed by e-waste, it is imperative for the following issues to be taken into account. 

  1. Legislation on e-waste; e-waste problem has been spurred by prevalence of poor e-waste management practices. To deal with this problem, it is essential for governments and non-governmental agencies to formulate effective legislations to address the prevailing gaps on e-waste management.  One of the legal areas of concern relates to importation and exportation of e-waste.
  2. Adjustment manufacturers’ approach to electrical and electronic production; electronic and electronic product manufacturers should consider enhancing their innovativeness by entrenching raw materials that generate minimum toxicants.
  3. Take-back system; manufacturers of electrical and electronic products should integrate responsible operational practices by formulating a take-back system in which they take-back their e-waste for recycling purposes. This move will play a critical role in minimising the volume of e-waste which is inappropriately disposed.
  4. Improvement of recycling processes; stakeholders in the e-waste recycling business should ensure that the process of recycling is effectively undertaken. One of the issues of concern entails provision of recyclers with the requisite tools and equipments to undertake the recycling activities. Additionally, recycling in open field should be restricted in order to minimise soil, water and environmental pollution. 

4.0 Conclusion

            The above analysis shows that e-waste present a myriad of environmental, financial and health problems that impact households both directly and indirectly. To deal with the above problems, it is imperative for individuals, governments, and non-governmental stakeholders to undertake a collaborative effort in dealing with the problems. Focusing on the above recommendations will play a fundamental role in reducing the environmental, financial and health problem of e-waste.




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Kirby, P & Lora-Wainwright, A 2015, ‘Exporting harm, scavenging value; transnational circuits of e-waste between Japan, China, and Beyond’, Area, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 40-47.

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