Each year somewhere around 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (which usually includes discarded computer monitors, chips, motherboards, cell phones, televisions, washing machines, refrigerators) is produced globally –that is almost equivalent in weight of all the commercial planes ever built– and if it is left unchecked, it could double to 120 million tonnes by 2050. And astounding is the fact that, of this waste, only 20 per cent gets recycled and rest is either burnt in incineration plants or ends up in landfills. With the Internet getting more penetration and digitalisation around the world, consumption of electronic appliances as has increased over the years. Our love for digital devices, our desire to own them and only to throw them after a couple of years have led to this mountain of e-waste. It is estimated that only 10 per cent of the cell phones are recycled in the US each year, and the citizens upgrade to a new cell phone within twelve and eighteen months. As electronic waste is warmed up, toxic chemicals are released in the air, thus damaging our environment. Even in landfills, the toxic materials seep into groundwater which affects both land and sea animals. Most electronic items contain lead, zinc, nickel, chromium and barium and these chemicals have grave health repercussions. Lead is known to cause serious kidney ailments.
The United States and China have been leading the pack in generating the most e-waste. It is estimated that as much as 32 per cent of global e-waste comes from only these two nations. If we talk about regions, Europe is not far behind too. It is estimated that 12 million tonne e-waste is generated in Europe. The e-waste produced in the developed countries ends up circulating all around the world, majorly in Nigeria, China, India, Pakistan and Ghana. Each year these nations receive tonnes of e-waste as they have established several businesses which disposes of these waste without much government oversight. Guiyu, the largest e-waste disposal in China, has been receiving shipments of toxic e-waste from all over the world. Many of its residents have been found to have suffered from digestive, respiratory, neurological and bone issues.
While there have been several existing policies regarding the proper management of e-waste, the lack of implementation, stringent regulations and a robust infrastructure remain the cause of poor e-waste management. We need better green standards and innovative technologies which are not only cost-effective but can also address large volumes of waste. Also, as a society, we need to find ways to recycle and reuse the gadgets and reduce the overall waste.
There has been a growing interest in the recovery of metals like gold and silver from electronic waste. In the Summer Olympics of 2020 in Japan, it is estimated that around 8,985 tonnes of e-waste have been used to make medals for the event. The organisers have recovered around 32 kgs of gold, 3,500 kgs of silver and 2,200 kgs of bronze. Many experts opine that e-waste in itself is neither a waste nor a pollutant, and if is treated and recovered in an environmentally conscious and cost-effective way, it can be of huge value as e-waste has gold, silver and other precious metals.