E-Waste: The Afterlife Of Electronic And Electrical Equipment

E-waste is a threat that is possibly bigger than plastic wastes to the entire ecosystem. There is a need to recognise these growing global hazard and find ways to deal with it.

We like to own sleek gadgets, and just when they outrun their usefulness faster than child celebrities, we just dump them like abandoned pets. The question is: How much are we dumping them, and what happens next? Does e-waste have an afterlife?

These discarded electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) are what we call e-waste. Where do they go when it’s time to meet their maker? Dumpsters, of course. What happens next is intriguing.

Which is nothing. Well, almost. That is the issue at hand here.

The Size

We have discussed the recycling of plastic here before, and sadly, the story is not too different when it comes to electronic devices. First, let’s look at the staggering amount of e-waste in our country, and before that, let’s establish this: globally, we produce about tons of plastic waste every freaking year. Actually, that’s a small number, considering that in Malaysia alone, the amount goes up to 34.4 tons.

The report here quotes the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) and the UNITAR (no, not that Unitar, but the United Nations Institute for Training and Research): the volume of so-called e-waste, which includes mobile phones, TVs, and vapes, is “rising five times faster than documented recycling.”

“We are currently wasting US$91 billion (RM431 billion) in valuable metals due to insufficient e-waste recycling,” a spokesperson was reported as saying in that report.

The E-Waste Danger

E-waste is a different class of waste altogether. Sure, they may not smell like the trail of garbage juice left behind by the municipal trucks, but they are certainly a bigger health threat. The e-waste rogue’s gallery includes:

Toxic Chemicals: E-waste contains hazardous substances like lead, mercury, cadmium, and beryllium, which can be pretty much of a bother to our insurance agencies.

Health Risks: Improper handling and recycling of e-waste can lead to health issues, particularly for workers in informal recycling sectors, including children and pregnant women, the very two categories of people we want to save first.

Environmental Impact: E-waste can contaminate soil and water sources, leading to ecosystem damage and affecting food chains, if we are not already doing enough damage.

Resource Waste: E-waste includes valuable materials that could be recycled and reused, but often they’re not, leading to a waste of finite resources. In short, bleak, very bleak.

Sure, the EEEs made life much easier and deadlier. Unfortunately, they have only a slightly longer lifespan than an average frog and can easily be outlived by a not-so-average frog (Goliath, a good 20 years before checking in an amphibian old folks home).

Look, the issue is that efforts in recycling alone are not enough, as this report from the UN notes that the generation of e-waste outpaces recycling as it is “rising five times faster than documented recycling capacity.”

Statistics from the Department of Environment - the Mobile Phone Forms the Handle of These Baseball Bats; See How They Grew over the Years. So Much E-waste ...
<em>Statistics from the Department of Environment The mobile phone forms the handle of these baseball bats see how they grew over the years<em> So much e waste

The Solution

In Malaysia, we do have an agency dealing with e-waste under the Department of Environment, and the last reported activity was somewhere last year. Then there are private companies and organisations that deal with EEEs, as listed here, including a Buddhist organisation that talks about materials dealing with the afterlife. The same agency also included ways of dealing with them with this super-friendly info graph that did not neglect the often-forgotten scooter riders:

The EPR

One of the often-proposed measures that would need the cooperation of the manufacturers is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, EPR can be defined as an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of the product’s life cycle.

Right now, we do have an entity called MAREA (Malaysian Recycling Alliance), a collaborative effort between 10 industry bigwigs and the government to deal with EPR, but so far there has been no mention of EEEs; it deals mostly with plastic stuff.

The Opportunity

It took pictures of turtles strangled by plastic to wake a few up and smell the garbage bin, and heaven knows pictures of which cute animal died of drinking contaminated water to start looking at our mobile phones as future hazards.

Plus, there ought to be a lot more awareness in the gold mine that is supposed to be these waste EEEs. Or urban mine, as the UN calls it, because these materials contain high-value, recoverable materials such as gold, silver, copper, and platinum, valued in this 2019 news at US$57 billion.

That figure alone should send scrap metal merchants circling over the landfills looking for corpses of old Oppos and Acers. – NMH

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