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E-waste – Where does it go?

Waste electrical & electronic equipment (WEEE), or E-waste as it is generally known, covers everything from computers, mobiles, consumer white goods (fridges, washing machines, etc.), TVs and stereos, toys, toasters, kettles and toothbrushes – indeed, almost everything that operates through a plug or battery.

Many e-waste items are manufactured using hundreds of different materials that contain a complex mixture of toxic substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFRs).

Exposure to lead, which is found in most circuit boards as well as TV sets and computer monitors, can damage foetal development and infant growth, as well as the nervous and reproductive systems in adults.

Cadmium and associated compounds can promote various types of cancer and is found in semiconductors and chip resistors.

Mercury affects baby growth, as well as the mental capacity in adults, and accumulates in living organisms, thus progressing upwards through the food chain. BFRs are found in circuit boards and plastics and also increase the risk of cancer.

Although strict regulations have been introduced in the US and Europe to prevent hazardous e-waste being dumped in landfill sites, as well as recent encouragement for consumers and manufacturers to re-cycle more safely, there is still a WEEE mountain to climb in the developing nations of Africa and Asia.

In Agbogbloshie, Ghana, it is estimated that 215,000 tonnes of electronic consumer goods originating from western countries are illegally dumped there every year. Here the children dig through the toxic trash without any protective equipment, scavenging for precious metals that can be sold and reused.

E-waste has become a local business, but it also produces life threatening illnesses for the children scrapping in the mire of the digital dump. This site in Ghana is expected to double in size by 2020 and likely to endanger more than 40,000 people if the western world continues to disregard international law.

Interpol claims that, although it is legal to export discarded goods to poor countries if they can be repaired and reused, many are classified as ‘used goods’ when they are actually beyond repair. These e-waste goods are likely to end up in landfill dumps like the one in Ghana, resulting in untold environmental pollution and ever-increasing health risks to the local populous.

Guiyu, in China, suffered an ‘environmental calamity’ according to a UN report in 2013. Workers suffered from toxic pollution through burning circuit boards, plastic and copper wires, releasing hydrocarbon ashes into the air and contaminating water and soil. First time visitors to the area claimed the air left them with burning nostrils and eyes.

Last year Shantou University tested children in Guiyu and found they had higher than average levels of lead in their blood, which can be detrimental to both the brain and the nervous system.

If the developed world is to overcome e-waste exploitation of developing countries then it needs to take more responsibility over its own consumerism. Electronic companies could do more to eliminate toxic chemicals from their products, improve recycling processes, encourage take-back programmes etc.

Informing and educating consumers on the global damage WEEE causes to our health and environment would also encourage more of us to recycle effectively, safely and efficiently.

Our infographic tells you more about E-waste.


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