I remember getting my first cell phone when I was in grade seven, a shiny grey LG Rumor 2. It had a slide out keyboard and a tiny screen; it could send texts and make calls and that was about it. In the nearly eight years since, I’ve gone through three more phones, not to mention two iPods and a laptop. The sad thing is, though there are a few people I know who’ve had the same phone for years, many others go through even more devices. Living in a society where updating and upgrading seems to happen overnight, its difficult to reconcile our want for the latest tech with the potentially detrimental effects of electronic waste. Our phones are getting smarter, but are we?
Many consumers find comfort in the concept of e-cycling, which is the recycling of electronic wastes. The word "recycling" holds such a positive connotation with relation to the environment, for many of us, myself included, I think it’s assumed that when we “recycle” our outmoded devices, they are dealt with in a responsible, safe way. However, I was surprised to discover that quite often this is not the case.
Globally, more than 42 million tonnes of e-waste are produced every year, if you’re like me and have a hard time conceptualizing such staggering numbers, I’ll try to create a visual for you. If all that waste was brought to one spot it would create a pile half a kilometre in diameter and over 3 km high. For reference, that’s nearly triple the height of the tallest building in Edmonton. Most developed nations have pretty strict regulations regarding electronic waste disposal, and this makes sense considering they are among the largest contributors to e-waste. Many facilities use state of the art technology to ensure waste is disposed of safely. In 2014, these sorts of facilities processed 6.5 million tonnes of waste, but what about the other 36 million? The rest of the waste gets “recycled” by developing nations, for one simple reason: cost.
In nations like India and China legislation is dodgy and not uniformly enforced, and in Africa it’s virtually non-existent. Reading about how e-waste disposal works in these developing countries is truly irksome. Imagine people cooking circuit boards over open fires and bathing microchips in corrosive acids in order to extract valuable metals like copper and gold. And this isn’t being done inside an industrial plant or a chem lab. E-waste recycling in developing countries is very much a cottage industry.
Up until a couple of years ago this is how e-waste disposal was done in the coastal village of Guiyu in South Eastern China that was colloquially called the “electronic graveyard of the world.” Toxins like mercury, arsenic and chromium leached into the groundwater there making it undrinkable, lead levels both in the nearby river sediment and in the blood of the village’s children were much higher than standardized safety levels and dangerously high amounts of carcinogenic dioxins were also reported. Rice farming used to be a major industry in Guiyu, but the toxins in the water there made it unfit for use in Agriculture, so farming activities died out. Clean-up efforts began a few years ago but have not had great success, unsafe disposal still happens in a sort of black-market fashion. Though, Guiyu is perhaps the most prolific case of environmental catastrophe as a result of e-waste, disposal sites in India and Africa face a similar plight.
How can I be sure I’m not unwittingly contributing to this toxic practice? Is there a way to be sure my old cellphone ends up in a facility equipped with the technology to safely dispose of it, and not in the hands of a vulnerable foreign worker? Stay tuned for my next article to discover the answers to those questions and many many more. (Sorry if that last part sounded a little gimmicky, but you’ve got to leave the readers wanting more, you know!)
- Zhang, Bin, and Dabo Guan. "Take responsibility for electronic-waste disposal." Nature 536 (2016): 4.
- Huo, Xia, et al. "Elevated blood lead levels of children in Guiyu, an electronic waste recycling town in China." Environmental Health Perspectives (2007): 1113-1117.
- Greenpeace East Asia. "Guiyu: An E-Waste Nightmare." greenpeace.org/eastasia/campaigns/toxics/problems/e-waste/guiyu/