Electronic waste is a component of electronic equipment, which includes a vast array of devices, for example personal computers, tablets, DVD players, printers, office equipment and CD players. People often describe used e-waste as a “dead” material. However, it is usually just a short period of time before it starts to emit toxic gasses and becomes a potential health hazard to the environment.¹
One of the main causes of e-waste is the need to keep the waste containers in operation, therefore maintenance and service is essential. In most cases, waste recyclers take this job, however the provision of this service also involves the disposal of the components, which is another serious issue. This is problematic as the current disposal methods of e-waste are often incompatible with the environment, including landfills and incineration.
Due to the growing e-waste problem, governments are starting to take steps to ban the import and export of certain types of e-waste. The first example of this can be seen in the US, where in 2010, a law called the Electronic Product Stewardship Act (EPSA) came into force, which legally banned the importation and exportation of hazardous electronic waste to developing countries. In some countries the law is not as effective. The reason is that the majority of e-waste is either disposed of directly into the rivers or sent to places that are not particularly developed. Furthermore, the legal framework is not very effective in these countries.²
Electronic waste in China and its impact
China is the country responsible for producing the majority of e-waste, and in 2010 alone, it produced 2.3 million tonnes of e-waste. China is now increasing its efforts to stop the waste, which has led to a series of crackdowns and restrictions on where the waste can go. One of the major problems is that most of the recycling plants in China are not equipped to handle the extra load, so it is being burnt.³
According to a study done by China Electronics Technology Consulting Centre, between 2000 and 2005, there were 551 fires in Chinese e-waste recycling plants. This led to the death of 69 workers, therefore not only is it environmentally unsafe, but e-waste also poses a threat to people working at the recycling plants. These workers often work in extremely dangerous conditions without the right safety equipment, and receive minimal pay for their work.⁴
How is e-waste recycled?
Another concern with e-waste is that it is not recycled, leading to even more e-waste being produced. Currently, in China, they are looking to introduce further environmental laws and regulations to manage e-waste. A number of organisations praise the government’s efforts to tackle e-waste, for example the IES is taking steps to change the situation. In 2010, the IES worked with the well-known Japanese clothing manufacturer Uniqlo to create the Cool Earth clothing line. The initiative started in South Korea, and its aim was to take on the e-waste problem, firstly by collecting and processing used plastic bottles and electronic waste.⁵
Uniqlo purchased waste from Hong Kong and Taiwan. After collecting a quarter of a million pounds of plastic waste, and a large amount of electronic waste, the waste was sent for recycling. The plastic bottles were turned into recycled polyester chips, which were then manufactured into yarn. Uniqlo subsequently used this yarn to make clothes for the Cool Earth clothing line.⁶ Aside from making clothing, they were also able to find other environmental methods of recycling them, and passed other waste to local projects.
¹ Electronic Waste, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/electronic-waste
² Electronics, https://www.productstewardship.us/page/Electronics
³ What Can We Do About the Growing E-waste Problem?, https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/08/27/growing-e-waste-problem/
⁴ Health Consequences for E-Waste Workers and Bystanders—A Comparative Cross-Sectional Study, https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/5/1534/htm
⁵ Finding Solutions to China’s E-waste Problem, https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/assessing-and-improving-the-e-waste-problem-in-china
⁶ Uniqlo Sustainability, https://www.uniqlo.com/en/sustainability/planet/special/recyclepolyester/?fluffyfleece