E-waste is the fastest-growing element of the world’s domestic waste stream, according to a 2017 report by the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor. Some 50m metric tonnes will be produced annually in 2020 — about 7kg for every person in the world. Just 20 per cent will be collected and recycled. The rest is undocumented, meaning it likely ends up in landfill, incinerated, traded illegally or processed in a substandard way. That means hazardous substances spilling into the environment, poisoning the ground and people living nearby.
Heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium — commonly found in LCD screens, refrigerators and air-conditioning units — as well as chemicals such as CFCs and flame retardants found in plastics can contaminate soil, pollute water and enter the food chain. Research last year by Basel Action Network, an NGO, linked toxic e-waste shipped from Europe to contaminated chicken eggs in Agbogbloshie — a Ghanaian scrapyard where 80,000 residents subsist by retrieving metals from electrical waste. Eating just one egg from a hen foraging in the scrapyard would exceed the European Food Safety Authority’s tolerable daily intake for chlorinated dioxins 220-fold.
Some appliances are more likely to be recycled than others. The recycling rate for big appliances, such as fridges and cookers, is about 80 per cent. That is because they are harder to dispose of and eventually get picked up, even when they are dumped by the kerb. Of small appliances, however, barely one in five makes it to the recycling centre. Across the world, governments are trying different ways to reduce e-waste and limit the amount that ends up in landfill.
For some time, EU countries have operated a one-for-one take-back system — which means that distributors need to take back, for free, an older version of any equipment they sell you. But since the rapid rise of online retailers, this has been harder to implement
In the end, all e-waste needs to be reduced to core metals. “It’s a bit like a mining activity.” In certain recycling plants robots have been programmed to dismantle flatscreen TVs, extracting precious metals such as cobalt or lithium, whose deposits are limited and increasingly valuable. “One of the hardest things about recycling is that you are not sure how [the manufacturers] made it.” Companies are encouraged to include this information on their devices. It could be a file with instructions readable by robots that could then proceed with the dismantling, making the process “easier, cheaper and more circular”. However, manufacturers have so far kept a close guard on the design of their products.
Many pressure groups and lawmakers have concluded that improving recycling rates will not be sufficient to tackle the global e-waste problem. Increasingly, they are advocating for the right to repair. In October 2019, the EU adopted a package of design measures to make household appliances more repairable. Starting from March 2021, manufacturers selling certain household appliances will have to ensure that spare parts are available for a number of years after their product has launched; that their items can be easily disassembled (and so use screws not glue); and that they provide access to technical information to repair professionals.
The rules cover appliances including refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers and televisions. But they do not extend to IT equipment such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones. “The road to a new product is very easy, and the road to a successful repair very difficult,” says Martine Postma, founder and director of Repair Café International Foundation, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. Since its first repair event in Amsterdam in 2009, the organisation has grown to nearly 2,000 repair groups in 35 countries around the world. Now, it wants to collect more data about electronic gadgets, to see if it can plot “weak points” in design that could help manufacturers make them more repairable.
Excerpts from Aleksandra Wisniewska, What happens to your old laptop? The growing problem of e-waste, http://wiki.ban.org, Jan. 10, 2020