Over the past two decades, the global market of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) continues to grow exponentially, while the lifespan of those products becomes shorter and shorter. Therefore, business as well as waste management officials are facing a new challenge, and e-Waste or waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is receiving considerable amount of attention from policy makers. Predictably, the number of electrical devices will continue to increase on the global scale, and microprocessors will be used in ever-increasing numbers in daily objects
(i) In the United States (US) market, less than 80 million communication devices were sold in 2003; the number was expected to exceed 152 million by 2008, a growth of over 90 percent in 5 years. Meanwhile, in 2006, more than 34 million TVs have been exposed in the market, and roughly 24 million PCs and 139 million portable communication devices have been produced 0
(ii) In the European Union (EU), the total units of electronic devices placed on the market in 2009 were more than 3.8 billion units, including 265 million computers, roughly 245 million in home consumer electronics, and 197 million consumer appliances (major)
(iii) In China, approximately 20 million refrigerators and more than 48 million TVs were sold in 2001, and nearly 40 million PCs were sold in 2009. Furthermore, the growth rate is increasing every year.
2. Definition of e-Waste
As a popular and informal term, electronic waste (e-Waste) is loosely referring to any white goods, consumer and business electronics, and information technology hardware that is in the end of its useful life. Specifically, Puckett et al.define e-waste as “a broad and growing range of electronic devices ranging from large household devices such as refrigerators, air conditions, cell phones, personal stereos, and consumer electronics to computers which have been discarded by their users”. According to Sinha-Khetriwal, “e-Waste can be classified as any electrically powered appliance that has reached its end-of-life”. As there does not seem to be a standard definition for e-Waste, we have for the purposes of this paper adopted the definition offered by Sinha-Khetriwal et al. . Meanwhile, a list of prevalent definitions has been provided by Widmer et al. Widmer et al.and Sinha-Khetriwal et al. use the terms “WEEE” and “e-Waste” synonymously.
3. Global Significance of e-Waste
e-Waste has raised concerns because many components in these products are toxic and do not biodegrade easily if at all. Based on these concerns, many European countries banned e-Waste from landfills in the 1990s. Ming Hong et al.found alarming levels of dioxin compounds, linked to cancer, developmental defects, and other health problems; in samples of breast milk, placenta, and hair, these compounds are linked to improper disposal of electronic products. Furthermore, surveys have indicated that much exported US e-Waste is disposed of unsafely in developing countries, leaving an environmental and health problem in these regions. The European Union has legislation requiring manufacturers to put in place e-Waste disposal mechanisms (Wanjiku). Due to the difficulty and cost of recycling used electronics, as well as, lackluster enforcement of legislation regarding e-Waste exports, large amounts of digital discards are transported internationally from various industrialized countries to certain destinations where lower environmental standards and working conditions make processing e-Waste more profitable. Impacts from those countries, especially Asia, have already been reported. Meanwhile, recycling and disposal of e-Waste are also growing in regions beyond Asia, particularly in certain African countries.
4. Current Challenges for e-Waste Elimination
In many cases, the cost of recycling e-Waste exceeds the revenue recovered from materials especially in countries with strict environment regulations. Therefore, e-Waste mostly ends up dumped in countries where environmental standards are low or nonexistent and working conditions are poor. Historically Asia has been a popular dumping ground, but as regulations have tightened in these countries, this trade has moved to other regions, particularly West Africa . Most developing countries lack the waste removal infrastructure and technical capacities necessary to ensure the safe disposal of hazardous waste. And e-Waste has been linked to a variety of health problems in these countries, including cancer, neurological and respiratory disorders, and birth defects . Therefore, the fight against illegal imports of WEEE has become one of the major challenges. From another perspective, some regulations, which have been established to handle e-Waste, are often limited since they exclude many hazardous substances that are used in electronics. Moreover, many regulations simply fail to address the management of e-Waste.
How Much E-Waste Are We Talking About?
This whole cell phone business wouldn’t be quite so overwhelming to fix if so damn many of them didn’t end up in the garbage. Once trashed, a cell phone travels to the local landfill, where it’s compacted, smashed, crunched, and/or burned until everything that was once safely ensconced inside spews out and over the course of months, years, and decades, leaches into the air, ground, and water.
And in large doses, the stuff inside a cell phone — as is the case with most electronics — has been linked to critical health concerns such as cancer, birth defects, brain afflictions, and damage to the nervous, reproductive, digestive, lymphatic, and immune systems. Even the brominated flame retardants that coat the plastic case of many cell phones, guarding against the accidental ignition of the materials inside, become potentially toxic once said case is compromised.
Granted, a single cell phone lying in a single landfill isn’t of tremendous concern. But we’re not talking a single cell phone. How many are we talking? Well…the United Nations says sixty percent of the world’s total population owns at least one. Think about that for a moment. Perhaps even more telling are recent reports claiming a whopping five billion mobile phone subscriptions are currently in place worldwide.
Now, consider how many of these users are already on their second, third, or fourth cell, and you begin to get the picture. But the truly scary part? Most reliable estimates say that no more than ten to fifteen percent of all cell phones are recycled. And that figure applies only here in the good old USA. One can only imagine how that figure varies in countries where recycling is a virtual unknown.
Ultimately, one can say with some confidence that literally billions of cell phones have been discarded over the course of the last three decades, all of which are now in the process of breakdown.