Electronic Waste: What Are The Effects And How Should We Tackle It?

By Esra Bilgin 

Everyone loves new tech gadgets. With the next generation of smartphones, tablets and computers, millions of people are thinking about replacing their old electronic equipment with the latest and greatest versions.  

According to the 2017 Global Electronic Waste Monitor report from the United Nations University (UNU), approximately 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste was produced globally in 2016, eight per cent more than the 41.4 million MT produced in 2014.

In other words, that’s almost the same weight as 4,500 Eiffel towers, 10 Titanics, 50 Empire State Buildings, nine great pyramids of Giza and 50 Burj Khalifas combined. Yet just 8.9 million tonnes of that e-waste was recycled.

Britain creates around 1.4 million tonnes of electronic gadgets yearly, making us the sixth highest producer of e-waste in the world at 100,000 tonnes per year – only slightly less than India, which has 20 times the population.

Britain is the sixth highest producer of e-waste in the world. Photo by Francesco Paggiaro.

Margaret Bates, Professor of Sustainable Wastes Management at the University of Northampton, says electronic waste can cause problems for both physical and mental health. But she says it is the poor management of e-waste, rather than e-waste in itself, that causes these problems.

James Rubin, founder of Envirowaste London Limited, says that electronic waste causes many problems for the environment and our health because devices contain a range of different chemicals, which release toxins once disposed.

But according to him, the biggest problem is making something brand new.

“Producing the average computer and monitor requires 240kg of fossil fuels, 21kg of chemicals and 1.5 tonnes of water. We should be careful when producing something new.”

Rubin says we need to create better systems for reusing or recycling products, but fundamentally it is the emphasis on new products that is the problem. He believes manufacturers make products to break quickly.

“We are forced into buying something new, because they have only a short life cycle, and this is done on purpose.”

Ian Williams, Professor of Applied Environmental Science at the University of Southampton, says that e-waste raises further ethical concerns, such as the use of child labour to extract metals from mines or the dumping of e-waste in poor countries.

But how responsible are big tech companies for e-waste? Prof Bates says companies have a responsibility to produce electronics with components that are easy to repair and recycle, but that we can’t blame them for providing what we ask for.

“When we buy something new, for example a telly, we should look at the energy efficiency, the recyclability and what percentage of the materials comes from recycled resources, instead of just looking at the screen size, the best sound and the best design.”

james rubin Photo by Envirowaste
James Rubin advises: “Don’t just be a consumer. Everything comes from the earth” // Photo by Envirowaste

Rubin says big tech companies should rethink their business models: “Apple want to make the best iPhone, but they do not have to make the best iPhone next year,  and the year after and the year after. This is just making profit. They have to think of our environment because we have just one.

“Big tech companies are hugely responsible for e-waste, but we give them power as  consumers. If we choose not to spend our money with a company, if we say we are only going to spend our money with responsible companies, everyone is going to have to be responsible.”

Rubin advises not buying brand new gadgets every year: “Do your own research before buying something new. Do not just be a consumer, because every purchase we make has an effect on the environment. Everything comes from the earth. Your clothes, tablets, phones; everything comes from the resources in the ground. So we need to start thinking a bit more responsibly.”

Prof Williams emphasises consumers’ responsibility: “If you go back to the 1980s there were only 12 chemical elements used in electronic and electrical equipment. But now a tiny little computer chip contains 61 or more different harmful elements, so when we buy something new we have to think twice.”

Featured Image by Alexandre Debiève on Unsplash

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