An E-Waste Epidemic

Illustration by Emma McCarthy

Every year, large tech companies put out new flagship devices that supposedly leave the old ones in the dust.

The upgrade is made compelling through the slightly better hardware, and the ability for one to show it off.

This constant, individualistic consumerism is killing the planet.

Technology developers know the value of such a marketing proposition and actively capitalize on it. After battling a class action lawsuit that originated in 2017, “Apple agreed to pay up to $500 million to settle a lawsuit accusing it of secretly slowing down older iPhones to encourage customers to buy a new device,” Tyler Sonnemaker fromBusiness Insider stated.

Although Apple continues to deny the allegations, the concept of slowing down older electronics in the hope the consumers will purchase a new one creates both an ethical and an environmental dilemma.

Not only should rampant consumerism be questioned, but also the failure of nations capable of doing so to address the problem.

From the ethical standpoint, recklessness regarding the world’s waste dumping causes harm and suffering to others in less affluent places, exacerbating the complex environmental side of the issue.

An Environmental Hazard

E-waste poses enormous health and environmental hazards to the communities that live with it.

United Nations Under-Secretary-General David Malone declared that "the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a toxic mine that must be managed with extreme care."

"The hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a toxic mine that must be managed with extreme care."

Not only is it composed of computers and smartphones, but the category also includes appliances like microwaves, heaters, air conditioners, washing machines and televisions.

“E-waste contains valuable metals (Cu, platinum group) as well as potential environmental contaminants,” Brett H. Robinson, in Science of the Total Environment, wrote.

Getting rid of the waste also proves to be a critical problem.

“Burning e-waste may generate dioxins, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons (PHAHs), and hydrogen chloride,” Robinson also stated.

While all of these chemicals are toxic, some are also carcinogenic.

So how do facilities process and remove the combination of chemicals from electronic waste?

A Global Impact

Although electronic recycling facilities in the U.S. have increased their ability to effectively process, derive goods from and mitigate toxic chemicals from e-waste, they only process a portion of the total amount of e-waste around the world.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, only 17.4 percent of e-waste is recycled, some of it being done without protocol or safety procedures.

Many rare earth metals are lost in the process when the could have been reused. Neodymium is used for permanent magnets in smartphones, and cobalt is used in lithium-ion batteries.

The latter element is the focus of a human rights issue that's put on the back burner. This is because efficient, longer lasting batteries, typically using cobalt, are in high demand.

Child workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo make mere pocket change mining cobalt around the southeastern provinces of the country, according to SAESSCAM, a public service that assists miners in the region.

What nobody sees is the mountainous pile of electronic trash our culture creates. There exists a huge, largely unseen waste problem that staves itself from the public eye.

“A record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21 percent in just five years,” the United Nations’ "Global E-waste Monitor 2020" reported. The monitor consists of a yearly report that compares and contrasts current e-waste buildup versus previous years, and also predicts how the rate of waste accumulation will change in the future.

In 2030, the monitor projects annual e-waste production to increase to 74 Mt.

Where Does It Go?

To make matters worse, most of the waste sits in dumps in developing countries, harming local inhabitants.

A commercial district in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, is home to the largest dump site of e-waste in the world.

The residents of the slums, in the district of Agbogbloshie, rummage the mountain of e-waste to collect copper and other metals that can then be sold.

The Blacksmith Institute, a non-profit specializing in solving pollution problems in developing countries, describes the burn process in detail.

Once-discarded styrofoam packaging is used as fuel to burn casing materials away, scavengers can collect the metal and sell it to make a living.

The institute, in "The World’s Worst 2013: Top Ten Toxic Threats," stated that “cables can contain a range of heavy metals, including lead. To some extent, these metals can migrate through particulates in the smoke, while significant amounts are also left behind on area soils.”

Additionally, skin diseases and respiratory illnesses are more common in residents due to their constant contact with a myriad of chemicals.

However, the air isn't the only resource affected.

"The Agbogbloshie area is home to one of the largest food markets in Accra, and haggard livestock roam freely and graze on the dumpsite," Peter Yeung wrote on a piece for Bloomberg.

The Blacksmith report lists Agbogbloshie similar to Chernobyl in toxicity levels.

We Sent It There

“While the United States and China together produce just over a third of the e-waste, the top per capita producers were wealthy nations of northern and western Europe — Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark and the United Kingdom,” Michael Casey from CBS News specified.

“While the United States and China together produce just over a third of the e-waste, the top per capita producers were wealthy nations of northern and western Europe."

The "Global E-waste Monitor 2020" built upon Casey's notion.

“In 2019, most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt), while the continent that generates the most in kg per capita is Europe (16.2 kg per capita).”

Although Europe recycles approximately 42.5 percent of its e-waste, documented e-waste that is collected and properly recycled is “substantially” lower than the total amount of it produced yearly.

What is not recycled is sent away to other parts of the world.

So, next time you throw your old electronics away in the trash or decide to upgrade your phone after only a year, take some time to reflect and reconsider. It might end up in Agbogbloshie.