Electronic-Waste: Past, Present and Future

Jacqueline Mullin

The term “electronic waste” or “e-waste” includes a wide variety of categories and items. Everything from old cell phones, broken washing machines, fax machines, and stereos are deemed to be electronic waste. An ever-expanding category, the immense amount of global e-waste (41.8 million metric tonnes in 2014 based on the United Nations report, “The Global E-Waste Monitor 2014 – Quantities, flows and resources”), continues to grow annually.

Experts such as Miriam Diamond, professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Earth Sciences, fear that the situation is already out of control. Quoted in reporter Nicole Mortillaro 2015 article, “Electronic waste is piling up. Here’s why you should care”, Diamond said “I see this as an issue that’s going to come back to haunt us. We’re drowning in e-waste, which has a large environmental burden. It’s just unsustainable.”

It is known that methods for managing e-waste differ around the globe. Some countries, such as India, China and Canada have national take-back legislation, however the level of program enforcement remains inconsistent. Historically, the more developed nations on the planet shipped their obsolete technology to places such as Africa where it was dealt with in ways unsafe to both the workers and the environment. The environmental impact of this solution – from the CO2 created by the transportation of the goods to improper handling and dismantling methods have had a profoundly negative impact on the environment.

The opportunity for change lies within the items themselves. Valuable materials and metals – iron, copper, gold and platinum to name a few, hide within discarded electronics. The challenge, which is being embraced by countries all around the world, will be to establish and maintain safe and economic extraction methods.

It’s important to understand not just the environmental cost, but the hidden human cost associated with electronic waste. For instance, are you aware that some companies ship hazardous materials to landfills overseas, while others send equipment to be dismantled by workers in countries like Pakistan and India, where labour protections are not as strict? Children are paid a mere $ 1.20 a day to handle toxic materials and scavenge for items, such as metals and plastics from e-waste in toxic dumps. Before you recycle, you might want to try to find out where that old computer of yours is going.

The room is wide open for developing safe, sustainable solutions that will have real impact on electronic-waste flow. Some of the world’s top technology experts are saying, if we have within us the creativity to develop amazing electronic products to address so many problems, it really should only be a matter of time before we find a way to deal with the waste that such products generate.