Can E-waste be Green?

Technology in the 21st century is driven by constant changes, development, improvements and upgrades.  Great for the consumer and techno-junkies impatient for the latest and greatest electronics.  But we are all familiar with electronic devices turning faulty, expensive repairs and suppliers recommending replacing with new devices.  As a result, electronic waste or e-waste is one of the most rapidly expanding solid waste streams for urban areas.  E-waste can almost include any electricity or battery operated device – a very broad range of household and industry goods!  According to Greenpeace, a volume of up to 50 million tonnes of e-waste is produced globally.   For the everyday consumer, this may not seem a significant problem. Why would old electronic devices be a problem, even hazardous?

Due to the often complex functioning of electronics, electronic devices include a range of components include scarce resources and toxic materials including heavy metals: lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and beryllium. Some governments have furthermore labeled cathode ray tubes (CRT) associated with older electronic monitor technologies, as hazardous.  The toxicity associated with electronics, often not recognized by the everyday user, is the main reason e-waste should be treated with care. Disposal at landfill sites will result in these toxins diffusing into the environment, through leaching into soil and water resources.  The other conventional alternative for waste management through incineration is also not suited for e-waste.  Incineration of e-waste will result in these toxins being emitted into the atmosphere, causing atmospheric pollution with associated health risks.

Next, let’s consider recycling. Recycling has proven to be an efficient and environmentally responsible waste management option for other solid waste streams.  Can it work for e-waste? Recycling initiatives for e-waste is a common practice and found in most countries.  However, it is not without its challenges and problems.  In 2008, the US uncovered that vast volumes of the country’s e-waste intended for recycling, were in fact shipped from the US to low-income developing countries, where low-income communities are exposed to the handling of these hazardous elements without proper protection or government regulations.  A case of environmental discrimination where the hazard has shifted elsewhere, to unprotected communities.  Ever since, shipment and disposal of e-waste in developing countries has become illegal, also guarded by the Basel Convention.  Recycling of e-waste requires close monitoring as illegal actions still pose a significant threat to the environment and communities.

But back to the question. Is there any way in which e-waste can be green? The answer is yes!

It should be recognized that your old and possibly non-functional electronic device, could find its way to a new owner, in full working condition!  With e-waste becoming increasingly problematic, companies offering to fix and re-distribute your old electronic equipment has mushroomed.  An alternative solution is the proper dissembling and recovering of all hazardous and re-usable elements, prior to disposal on landfill sites. This recovery process not only contributes to job creation, but ensures the safe handling of e-waste and successfully prevents environmental pollution.  Not only is this practice environmentally sustainable, but also economically sustainable.  All materials recovered from the dissembling process has an economic value as recycled materials.

Thus, have any electronic waste to discard?  Find your nearest e-waste association!  Check whether they have the necessary certifications and registrations (i.e. Global Knowledge Partnerships in e-Waste Recycling) recognizing sustainable e-waste management and service providers, ask them about their e-waste management policy and be sure that your e-waste is transformed from hazardous to green.

Photo credits: some rights reserved by MaskedRetriever and Route79 via flickr.


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