UNITED STATES May 16 2015 9:01 AM
Our recent wave of technology has paved the way for a number of things: ecommerce, e-books, e-waste… Wait a minute, what the heck is “e-waste?” Is it unused websites the Internet somehow manages to discard overtime? Is it electronic paperwork that somehow gets shelled out into the atmosphere when business dealings fail or come apart?
Actually, the term sounds more complicated than it actually is. Discarded television sets, computer boards, cellular phones and even old dishwashers and microwave ovens fall into the “e-waste” category, and our planet currently serves as a massive graveyard for 46 million tons of it.
We’re all guilty of adding to this measure. Whether out of ignorance or sheer carelessness, we’ve probably discarded old and dusty television sets or inoperable cell phones with cracked screens by simply taking them to the nearest dumpster and doing what we typically do with all our bottles, tin cans and plastic cups (which, by the way, we should also be recycling whenever we can). For many of us, there’s simply no difference between a crumpled McDonald’s bag and a damaged phone. It’s all garbage, and it can all be disposed of the same way. That’s what our trash system is here for, right?
Wrong! Most of the time, tossing away old electronics or electrical devices is a terrible waste of valid, recyclable materials. Current e-waste statistics explain that last year approximately $52 billion in potential revenue was literally “thrown out” by means of those who did not think to properly recycle their items. According to the United Nations University (UNU), 2014’s levels of e-waste contained heavy amounts of valid and reusable material ranging from copper, iron, gold, silver and aluminum among other elements. Very few materials from these junked articles are ever recovered and reused, however, and only about one-sixth of e-waste is ever appropriately converted.
The other issue at hand is that several of these items dispel toxic substances that when handled poorly, can have negative effects on a population’s mental and physical health. Between mercury, cadmium and chromium, the UNU estimates several health-threatening toxins are leaking from these items regularly. Electronic devices shipped to areas such as Ghana, for instance, have put entire communities at risk.
Here we arrive at the words of photographer Valentino Bellini, who visited Agbogbloshie in 2012. The name applies to the largest e-waste dumping site at the center of Ghana’s capital city Accra, and the effects of e-waste hazards generated both horror and anger in the mind of the young photographer.
“It was like hell,” states Bellini when describing the area. “Huge, lots of stuff everywhere… The air was heavy from burning plastic.”
The effects of the items and their toxins are regularly seen amongst the young workers who raid the e-waste fields, cleaning and dismantling items. The Guardian reportsthe men suffer from a number of physical and mental ailments, including burns, eye damage, nausea, anorexia, lung problems and back problems. Bellini has since created the BIT ROT project, which tells the stories of those involved in e-waste through personal photos. Bellini is using his most comfortable medium to get the word out that precautions must be taken, and he’s hoping for someone to take the bait along the way. Thus far, China and the United States are the primary leaders when it comes to properly disposing of and recycling electronic material. Both countries reduced the amount of e-waste by an impressive one-third in 2014. Furthermore, nations such as the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland are not far behind on an individual basis.
The unfortunate truth is, however, that results have been fairly slow. Despite the efforts of the U.S., the United Nations states the average American will produce approximately 65 pounds of e-waste per year, and these statistics are expected to increase by 33 percent over the next four years. Things often tend to get worse before they get better.
UN Undersecretary-General David Malone explained, “Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ - a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials. At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care... [This] provides a baseline for national policymakers, producers and the recycling industry to plan take-back systems.” Apparently, despite the grisly future prospects, it appears all hope is not lost.
A UNU study shows that the most common ways of properly disposing electronic items include municipalities, retailers and commercial pick-up services. However, while these options are available to most inner-city residents and suburbanites, there may be certain factors turning people off to the idea of employing such means. For one thing, pick-up services usually invoke prices depending on the number of items. Many people, while open to the idea of recycling, may not be open to the idea of having to pay to recycle, and thus the option becomes obsolete in their mind.
A more effective method might fall into the arena of municipalities. Collection points and various drop-off locations are likely to serve a more effective purpose as they require no fees. A few simple sheets to fill out, some basic contact information and boom! The job is done. One’s devices are quickly loaded up onto a cart where they are taken away and dismantled properly for usage in future items.
The study also briefly explains the regulations set forth by the Basel Convention, which was implemented in the early ‘90s to help protect human health and prevent illegal imports of toxic or poisonous materials from developing nations.
E-waste is generated from every country on every continent to one degree or another. Regulations and specific materials may differ depending on the region, but the globe is united in its abilities to produce waste and in its desires to prevent health hazards resulting from such waste. Plainly put, a world that “cooperates within itself” is likely to see its strength and safety rise in the coming years.