E-Waste: Downside to the Tech Revolution

By Nitin Dani 20 July, 2016

Faced with mountains of harmful e-waste in China, Green Initiatives launched [WE] Project. Dani, co-founder, shares

China is one of the largest producers of e-waste with >6 mt/year; E-waste can be highly toxic & wastes resources
Only 10-15% of global e-waste is recycled; part of the issue is that recycling is difficult, dangerous & expensive
The Shanghai [WE] Project changes this, it is easy & scalable; the time to join is now with growing consumption

Chances are you are reading this article on a smartphone or tablet, or maybe even a traditional desktop computer. Either way the device you are using was born out of the technology revolution that has transformed our lives. Mostly, such devices have had a positive impact on society, but at the margin, far from view, they are causing serious environmental damage.

Worldwide we are consuming more electrical and electronic products than ever before, which creates a hidden but terribly harmful trail of e-waste. Huge amounts of energy and raw materials are used to make items such as an iPhone; and once they are thrown away, those same raw materials end up in landfills or incinerators where they become toxic pollutants.

China is one of the largest producers of e-waste at >6 mt/year

Every year millions of tons of e-waste is produced globally but little is being done to make sure that it is disposed of in a safe and sustainable manner. China is one of the world’s largest producers of e-waste, generating over 6 million tonnes of such trash each year, yet at the national and community level there is simply not enough being done to promote awareness of the issue or to provide solutions to help reduce the impact of the electronics boom.

This is where the [WE] Project by Green Initiatives (a Shanghai-based environmental organization), comes in. Launched in close collaboration with Netspring Social Enterprise, this project empowers local communities to take direct action to make e-waste recycling cleaner and safer while also encouraging the reuse of electrical devices and their components to reduce consumption.

E-waste can be toxic & resources are wasted
Not enough is being done, so we launched the [WE] Project

The WE Project

Explosion in E-Waste

E-waste encompasses all items and parts of electrical and electronic equipment that are being discarded without the intent of being reused. This broad and fast growing waste group includes computers, televisions, mobile phones, toys, and other small electronics as well as large household appliances such as refrigerators, air conditioners, home entertainment and much more. The fact that an average cellphone user in China replaces their handset roughly once every 18 months only further highlights this problem.

Cellphones are replaced on average every 18 months

This phenomenon is a global problem, not just in rich countries. While the United States and Europe generate the most e-waste, often through short-life products such as TV sets, smartphones and wearable gadgets, developing Asian nations are catching up fast as middle class consumers in places like India and Indonesia begin to afford fridges and washing machines. Around 41 million tonnes of e-waste is generated each year and is predicted to rise to 50 million tonnes annually as early as 2017, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.1

With a booming domestic consumer market, China’s demand for electronics is rapidly rising. In 2011, Chinese consumers purchased hundreds of millions of units of domestic and tech products and generated 3.62 million tonnes of e-waste, says a study by the United Nations University.

Environmental Impact of E-Waste

E-waste contains hundreds of substances of which many are toxic. About 85% of our e-waste is sent to landfills or incinerators to be burned. When e-waste goes into landfill or is incinerated these toxins are released into the soil, water and air harming the environment and our health. Health problems associated with such toxins include impaired mental development, cancer, and damage to the lungs, liver and kidneys.

E-waste contains hundreds of substances of which many are toxic

Guiyu, a town in south China’s Guangdong Province, is infamously known as the “electronic graveyard of China” and provides a tragic example of the health problems caused by toxins that leak or are released from e-waste. Traces of dioxin found in the town in a survey a few years back were significantly above safe levels and up to 88% of local young children tested were found to have clinical lead poisoning, which can damage central nervous systems and kidneys.

A computer & its screen uses 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of chemicals & 1,500L of water…
Yet, only ~10-15% of global e-waste is recycled

The production of electric and electronic devices is a very resource-intensive activity. A UN study found that the manufacturing of a computer and its screen takes at least 240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals and 1,500 litres of water – more than the weight of a rhinoceros or a car. According to various market research reports, the production of such devices accounts for 19% of global copper demand, 54% of tin and 20% of nickel, not to mention a high percentage of other metals and minerals including rare earths and lithium. The damage caused to the earth from resource mining is well documented, as is the water-intensity of such activities.

E-waste comprises 70% of overall toxic waste globally, however only about 10–15% of it is recycled. Part of the problem is that recycling electronics is a difficult, dangerous and expensive process.

Why We Need to Recycle and Re-use

Faced with growing mountains of harmful e-waste urgent action is needed. Safely recycling discarded products or reusing unwanted devices can prevent toxins from being released into the environment, save energy used for the manufacture of goods and curb mining of raw materials.

Despite a slow start, policymakers and environmental groups worldwide are beginning to take action and in recent years many national governments and multilateral institutions have promulgated rules to tackle the issue. In 2009 China issued regulations for the recovery and disposal of waste electrical and electronic products (WEEE) with the aim of establishing a system for the disposal and recovery of such items.

A top-down approach keeps consumers at a convenient distance to the consequences of their addiction to gadgets

But relying on this top-down approach is not only insufficient (illegal e-waste processing still persists in many countries) it also creates a convenient distance between consumers and the consequences of their addiction to gadgets, which needs to be broken if we are to stand a real chance of breaking down those mountains of e-waste.

A Safe and Formal Approach to Tackling E-Waste Recycling

E-waste collection and recycling in urban China has been happening for quite some time but it remains mostly informal and unsafe. A common sight in Chinese cities is that of individual e-waste collectors going door to door on modified bicycles to buy unwanted or broken electrical products, which are then sold to mid-level scrap dealers, refurbishers and recyclers. Unfortunately, the final recycling process is rarely safe or clean, meaning environmental damage and health threats to the workers who handle e-waste is all too frequent.

E-waste collection & recycling in urban China has been happening for quite some time but it remains mostly informal & unsafe
The [WE] Project changes this

There are formal collection schemes but they are few and far between, and not many people know where or how to access them.

This is where the [WE] Project comes in: to provide a safe and easy alternative to existing collection and recycling programs while at the same time educating consumers about their consumption habits. Launched this spring in Shanghai, China’s largest urban center, [WE] Project sets a model that can scale quickly across the country.
Bin Contents BW
In Shanghai, organizations are being encouraged to install collection boxes in offices, schools and commercial areas where members of the community can safely and easily bring unwanted items such as old phones, hair driers or coffee machines to be recycled. At regular intervals the boxes are picked up and brought to TES-AMM’s certified dismantling factory where the products are recycled. Where possible materials and resources are such as plastic, glass, epoxy; precious metals such as gold and silver; and non-precious metals such as copper are extracted and reused for manufacturing newer products.

Mercury for example is taken care of in a sustainable manner, protecting the health of  workers & avoiding environmental pollution

By using a professional and certified recycling process it is possible to ensure that hazardous materials used in some products, for example mercury, are taken care of in a sustainable manner, protecting the health of recycling workers and avoiding environmental pollution. A strategic partner on the [WE] Project, TES-AMM is a global leader in providing IT lifecycle services.
E-waste recycling process
Netspring, our key partner in the project, is a social enterprise helping poverty-stricken children by building green IT classrooms in underprivileged areas and actively arranging repair, refurbishment and/or certified disposal of obsolete electronics.

The project is easy to join & scalable, help by doing your part!

As the project grows in scale it aims to secure the cooperation of suppliers and manufacturers to generate major reductions in e-waste, thereby creating a larger positive impact. In the meantime it would develop into a self-sustaining social business dedicated to pushing e-waste recycling awareness from the margins and up the decision-making ladder, and would also allow the process to become more professional and offer more focused recycling solutions.

For the foreseeable future consumption of electronic and electrical devices in China is likely to grow, but you can do your part to help minimize this! Contact us to see how you can get involved as an individual, large company or school, hotel, café or if you’re working in an electronics manufacturing company.

1 https://www.unep.org/newscentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=26816&ArticleID=35021

Further Reading

  • Can We Build A Clean & Smart Future On Toxic Rare Earths? – Almost all smart, green & clean tech need rare earths to work, but mining & processing these are highly polluting. Lead author Liu of China Water Risk’s new report:  “Rare Earths: Shades Of Grey” explores this paradox. It is time to rethink our clean & smart future
  • Rare Earth Black Market: An Open Dirty Secret – The black market exacerbates environmental pollution from rare earth mining in China. With low prices, depleted reserves and contaminated drinking water, find out if your smartphone, tablet or electric car is party to this. Hongqiao Liu expands
  • Wind & Sun: Relief For China’s Dry North – China’s North is parched but is home to a significant amount of coal reserves & arable land. Can wind & solar power help bring relief? CWR’s Thieriot on how but be warned, challenges remain
  • China’s Soil Ten – With ~1/5 of China’s farmland polluted, the Soil Ten Plan could not come sooner. See impacts to the “Hateful Eight” polluting industries & get the distilled version of the 231 actions in our review
  • 2015 State of Environment Report Review – China says overall environment quality has worsened in 2015 with groundwater deteriorating for the fifth year straight. It’s mixed news for rivers but lakes & reservoirs see marked improvement. Get the latest pollution status updates from the newly released 2015 State Of Environment Report
  • Technology at a Price – This Christmas have you considered the environmental pollution caused by your new smart phone? An investigation by the Green Choice Alliance, found many IT company suppliers guilty of polluting China’s third largest freshwater lake
  • Be Green and Prosper – With increased fines, penalties and jail sentences, China Water Risk’s McGregor & Liu expand on China’s push towards ‘all things green’. Also hear from top business leaders in China on why it pays to be green to prosper
  • Electronic Waste-Moving Mountains – Can China move its mountains of electronic waste? Read about the extent of China’s electronic waste & her attempts at finding legislative & practical solutions in this review
Nitin Dani
Author: Nitin Dani
Nitin Dani is an architect by profession and an environmentalist at heart. He received his Bachelor in Architecture, from Bangalore, India and Masters in Strategic Design from Politecnico di Milano, Italy. He was raised and educated in various parts of India and has worked previously worked in Bangalore, Singapore, and Milan. In Shanghai he began his career in a branding agency in 2010. He later moved on to form an entrepreneurial venture facilitating clean technology solutions for the Chinese market, while also co-founding Green Initiatives (formerly Green Drinks China). GI is an environmental nonprofit organization that focuses on education, awareness and action on environmental issues through projects, events, trainings & workshops for the regular community, students and professionals. GI has organised over 200 events since its inception in 2009. Nitin also works as a Project Director with GIGA, an organization working on material research, cloud software and indoor air quality certification.
Read more from Nitin Dani →