E-waste / Cyber Waste
"E-waste" and "cyber waste" describe the unwanted systems and components of our industry. Green organizations and facilities mitigate their e-waste impacts by repurposing and recycling equipment when scheduled for replacement. Despite all the focus on e-waste over the past decade, it continues to pollute communities around the world and threatens global ICT infrastructures. Yet no one cal agree on how much is actually out there.
"The developing world is becoming the west's digital dumping ground. Every year around 50m tonnes of unwanted electronic devices make their way to vast e-waste dumps in Guiyu in China and Agbogbloshie in Ghana – often illegally. Some of them will be repaired and resold. Others will be broken into their components, at considerable expense to the environment and people's health, and sold as raw materials to manufacturers. Yet more will be left as piles of toxic litter... In, fact, only around 13% of the e-waste generated each year is recycled.... If the trend continues, the annual amount of global e-waste will be 65m tonnes by 2017."
The Guardian calls out the "absurdity of manufacturing a device in China, shipping it around the world to a European consumer and then, when it is disposed of, shipping it straight back to an e-waste dump close to where it was built..."
Measuring e-waste is not easy and estimates differ. Compare this estimate from a 2015 UN University report to the estimate cited, above.
It is estimated that the total amount e-waste generated in 2014 was 41.8 million metric tonnes (Mt). It is forecasted to increase to 50 Mt of e-waste in 2018. This e-waste is comprised of 1.0 Mt of lamps, 6.3 Mt of screens, 3.0 Mt of small IT (such as mobile phones, pocket calculators, personal computers, printers, etc.), 12.8 Mt of small equipment (such as vacuum cleaners, microwaves, toasters, electric shavers, video cameras, etc.), 11.8 Mt of large equipment (such as washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, electric stoves, photovoltaic panels, etc.) and 7.0 Mt of cooling and freezing equipment (temperature exchange equipment).
This estimate is not only lower overall, but contains many items not usually associated with e-waste. If we just look at "screens" and "small IT", there would be less that 10 Mt of ICT e-waste.
Illegal e-waste disposal does more than harm the disposal countries. It can result in low-quality recycled components that threaten safety and undermine national security.
Manufactured Landscapes, a visually powerful film based on the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, vividly portrays how much "re-cycled" e-waste ends up in third-world countries and exactly how it gets processed. Here are some excerpts from Burtynsky's web site back in 2009:
It is estimated by the recycling industry that 80 per cent of the e-waste collected in North America for recycling goes offshore and out of that amount 90 per cent goes to China.
In China . . . workers use their hands and primitive tools to pick apart the junked computers and salvage precious components. In the process they expose themselves and their environment to toxic elements such as lead, mercury and cadmium.
In China many of the people involved in this process are farmers who stopped tilling their land in favor of the more lucrative e-waste recycling trade. The farmers earn about $1.50 US per day cooking circuit boards to remove components, sloshing corrosive acid solutions over removed chips and burning wires and other plastic-coated parts to liberate metals. These are routine operations conducted by workers of all ages and both genders with a minimum of occupational health protection or appropriate equipment.
Enterprises need to audit their recycling chain to understand exactly what is happening to their discarded ICT gear.
Click on the 'recycle' tab for more about e-waste.