It’s estimated that by 2030 we’ll produce 74 million tons of e-waste every year, with wealthier nations exporting the problem and poorer countries left to deal with the fallout. At the same time, corporations’ love of electronics is showing no signs of slowing down. This week, we revive the e-waste conversation…
The reality behind e-waste and recycling
The e-waste trade
Population growth, urbanisation, capitalism and unfair labour practices have led to e-waste becoming the fastest-growing stream of waste in the world. And there is no sign that this will slow down. This demand is fuelling a competitive and dynamic global electronics industry, which in 2010 was estimated to employ 18 million women and men globally. Research by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) produced some staggering country statistics: In China, 690,000 people were estimated to be working as collectors/recyclers. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, an estimated 60,000 people work in e-waste. In New Delhi, India, there are between 10,000 and 25,000 informal e-waste workers. Evidently, this is a social crisis as much as an environmental one.
The e-waste trade is a billion-dollar industry that exploits international regulations. Companies, looking to save money, select developing countries as dumping grounds for their e-waste. These countries are targeted due to their cheap labour and minimal regulations regarding health and the environment.
IMAGE: via ResearchGate | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Research showing some known routes, sources, and destinations of e-waste transit.
The Scientific American listed the world’s 10 most polluted sites as e-waste dumping grounds. Amongst the top is: Agbogbloshie, near Accra, Ghana. An estimated 6,000 men, women and children work here, burning everything from smartphones to air conditioning units for their valuable metals, and the toxins released from the fires contaminate the air and food of the city. The damage doesn’t stop there. As toxins are released into the air and soil, surrounding animals are poisoned too. The workers here, most lacking any alternative, suffer from severe burn wounds and respiratory damage—some dying as early as their 20s.
Labour and employment challenges in e-waste
1. When e-waste is poorly managed, as is the case in many countries, it poses a severe threat to human health and the environment. Workers handling e-waste, their families and those living near disposal sites could be exposed to hazardous substances when no appropriate measures are taken.
2. Workers handling e-waste have no voice, and no bargaining power. Work is intense, with low earnings and insufficient protection. There’s an absence of trade unions or workers’ organisations to represent and demand for fairer rights.
3. Workers are usually poor and marginalised, some are even children who are forced to help out with their families.
So what can we do? With the right infrastructure, regulations, incentives, policies, and processes in place to manage e-waste in ways that advance decent work and protect the environment, e-waste work can be made less exploitative. Let’s see how
What are the regulations in place?
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
In a nutshell, a regulated e-waste management system is based on the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) approach, where producers bear the responsibility for the collection and treatment of their products when they reach end-of-life. There are e-waste collection points that then send products for proper treatment and recycling/reuse/dismantling instead of immediate disposal; this also relies heavily on consumers to remember to dispose of their items at the right place.
EPR may seem like a comprehensive solution that holds producers and other entities liable for e-waste generation. Let’s see how effective it really is…
Case Study: Conflicts of interest in France
Ecosystem is a non-profit organisation accredited by the French Public Authorities to collect, decontaminate and recycle household waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), professional equipment (professional WEEE), lamps, and small fire extinguishers. It is financed by ERP taxes and owned by 41 companies (appointed by the state every four years) including manufacturing producers, importers and distributors who are all responsible for placing equipment on the market and managing their end of life. That is, on their board are companies that sell electronic wares and do not have any vested interest to repair and affect their sales.
Case Study: India’s e-waste policy
India’s first e-waste legislation came into force in May 2012 and was implemented at the state level by State Pollution Control Boards. In 2016, the legislation was revised and EPR became a federal responsibility. Producers are now required to set up a deposit-refund system to incentivize consumers to return electronic and electrical equipment. Producer responsibility organizations were introduced to assist
manufacturers in complying with the EPR legislation.
Research has shown, however, that a general lack of awareness of the e-waste legislation and a lack of capacity to implement it has undermined its effectiveness in practice. According to ILO, over 90 percent of the country’s e-waste continues to be handled by workers in the informal economy.
Getting started with #LittleGreenSteps
All of us—consumers, governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations—have the agency to engage in social dialogue and action that supports a just transition towards environmental sustainability in e-waste management:
1. Re-evaluate whether you really need that extra gadget. Try sticking with one device with multiple functions.
2. Extend the life of your electronics. Buy a case, keep your device clean, and avoid overcharging the battery.
3. Buy environmentally friendly electronics. Look for products labelled Energy Star or certified by the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). The EPEAT is a global assessment tool that helps purchases, manufacturers, resellers, and others buy economically preferable electronic products.
4. Repair electronic equipment where feasible.
5. Donate used electronics to social programs and/or mutual aid networks in your region.
6. Towards a just and gentler transition: help protect labour rights of those in the e-waste trade by supporting your local e-waste union and amplifying their voices. Informality is the synonym of exploitation. Social protection starts with a transition to the formal economy where unwaged/unpaid work is discontinued.
7. Are you a reader from Hong Kong or Singapore? The Circular Community are individuals from diverse industries that aim to engage, empower, and educate to make circularity mainstream. Join their WhatsApp groups for creatives, plastics, food, and business eco-news, updates!
FEATURED IMAGE: via Mumtahina Tanni on Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Excavator’s arm reaching out to the top of a hill on a landfill in Bangladesh.
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