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Global Burden of E-Waste: Health and Environmental Impacts

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 2241 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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E-waste or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) – is the term used to describe old, end-of-life or discarded appliances using electricity which includes computers, consumer electronics, fridges etc. that have been disposed of by their original users (Lundgren 2012). unfortunately, this definition is one of many because there is no standard definition of e-waste. Electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) is currently the largest growing waste stream in the glob due to rapid technology innovation, ever-shortening product lifespans and increase of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) consumption (Lundgren 2012). This growing has major health, environmental and economic impacts especially in developing countries. According to the United Nation Environment (UN environment), computers lifespan has decreased from six years in 1997 to two years in 2005 in developed countries (un environment 2017).

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Widmer et al., 2005 estimated that e-waste constitutes 8% of the total municipal solid waste. In 2014, the total e-waste generated worldwide was estimated to be about 41.8 million tons (t) with about 3-5% annual growth rate (Baldé et al. 2014). Out of this, only (15%) 6.5 million tons has been reported to be formally treated (Baldé et al. 2014; Heacock et al. 2016). Up to 80% of the e-waste that sent for recycling in developed countries are illegally transported to developing countries mainly in Africa, and Asia (Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) 2009). Countries such as US, Japan, China, India, and countries from the European Union are the main sources of e-waste (Baldé et al. 2014). Unfortunately, most of developing countries receiving e-waste are not technologically equipped and usually use simple hazardous methods for recycling (Lundgren 2012). Accordingly, people’s health and environment in these developing countries are jeopardized (Smith et al. 2006; SAICM 2009).


E-waste contains up to 60 different valuable metals that have been estimated to be equal to €48 billion (Baldé et al. 2014; Namias 2013). BullionStreet (2012) stated that electronic industry consumes about 320 t of gold and 7500 t of silver every year and mining of e-waste could generate $21 billion each year. About 40% of this profits comes from in the printed circuit board that have a potential revenue of 21,200/t, while it is only form 3-6% of the total e-waste generated worldwide every year (Golev et al. 2016). At the same time, e-waste can generate more amount of metals comparing to the conventional mining operations using the same amount of power in both ways (Namias 2013). Also, Studies have revealed that the global ore grade are decreasing and mines are forced to excavate more complex and fine-grained ore deposits to meet the global metal need (Lèbre and Corder 2015).

According to the electronics takeback coalition (2014), recycling 1 million cell phones can recover about 24 kg (50 lb) of gold, 250 kg (550 lb) of silver, 9 kg (20 lb) of palladium, and more than 9,000 kg (20,000 lb) of copper. Nonetheless, the run of mine ore needed to produce the same amount of metal is 10-160 times more than that of the waste mobile phones. Beside saving money, recycling can provide the same amount of metal with substantial less power intake compared to mine ore (Cui and Forssberg 2003). Consequently, it will lead significant reduction in the volume of gas emission due to new metal production.

Economic Outcome

Form economic standpoint, plays an important employment role in the recycling sectors of some low and middle-income countries such as China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Ghana, and Nigeria (Lundgren 2012; Programme des Nations Unies pour l’environnement 2011). For example, In Guiyu, China, the largest informal e-waste recycling location in the world, e-waste recycling provides jobs to almost 100,000 people as e-waste recyclers (Heacock et al. 2016; Lundgren 2012). With the similar throughput, 300-600 new treatment facilities will have to be developed in China to deal with the total generated e-waste from 2020 to 2030 that can potentially provide jobs to 30,000 people (Zeng et al. 2016).

Health and Environmental Impacts

Despite the economic benefits from recycling, e-waste processing has raised alarming environmental and health issues specially in developing countries. Where e-waste recycling sector is unregulated and unaccountable collecting, processing, and redistributing tends to be performed by workers at temporary sites, residences, crude workshops, and open public spaces. Informal recycling areas usually inhabited by poor people with scarce job possibilities and their main concern is feed themselves and their families; this primary concern predominates that for personal health and safety (The Lancet 2013). Recycling without protection exposes workers to many hazardous chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, nickel, and lead (Lundgren 2012). The incineration of these chemicals release compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), poly-brominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and furans (PCDD/ Fs) gases that effect soil, atmosphere, and water (Hossain et al. 2015).The hazard from e-waste processing not only threatens operator health, but also, puts the health of people living nearby and next generations living in the surrounding areas in jeopardy (Liu et al. 2009).

Toxins absorption and effects vary based on type and quantity of e-waste, length of exposure, methods processing, and physiological vulnerability, especially in pregnant women and children (Grant et al. 2013). People exposed to hazardous substances in e-waste through multiple routes, including food, water, air, and soil (Norman et al. 2013). There is high accumulative in the area where informal recycling locations have functioned for more than a decade (Chen et al. 2011). The impact of the hazardous substances from e-waste can spread beyond processing sites and into ecosystems (Sepúlveda et al. 2010; Zhang et al. 2010). For example, rice and dust samples collected from homes close to e-waste settings had almost double the maximum permissible concentrations of lead, cadmium, and copper (Zheng et al. 2013).

An exposure of contaminated food such as rice plus inhaling lead through house dust situates children to high risk of neurotoxicity and adverse developmental effects (Zheng et al. 2013). Studies have linked exposure to such toxins with increases in spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, premature births, reduced birthweights, and birth lengths events (Liu et al. 2009; Wu et al. 2011; Wu et al. 2012). Also, physical growth indicators, such as weight, height, and body-mass index, were significantly lower in children living in the e-waste recycling town of Guiyu than in those living in the control area Liangying (Zheng et al. 2013).

Environmentally, as mentioned earler, disposal of these chemicals/metals in landfills or by incinerating them can produce harmful effects to the environment (Heacock et al. 2016). The amount of cadmium exists in a cell phone battery have a potential to pollute 600m3 of water (Garlapati 2016). For example, the concentration of metals such as lead, copper and nickel that found in the discharge channel near Guiyu to Nanyang road and Chendiandian to Guiyu road in China were 400-600 times higher than that is expected from uncontaminated river sediments (Brigden et al. 2005). Similar results were obtained from formal recycling sites with elevated content of nickel, copper, lead, zinc and cadmium in Philippines (Yoshida et al. 2016).

To conclude, the elevated level of hazard of e-waste show the importance of proper recycling techniques and safer recycling facilities that can reduce the risks related to the environmental and public health and safety issues. Also, future studies needed to assess the direct and indirect health cost of informal e-waste recycling, health and environmental impacts of the formal e-waste treatment.


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