Globalization has brought a world of possibilities for electronics manufacturers. Research & Development, production and distribution knows no geographic boundaries, as does the waste generated when devices become obsolete. When appraising the situation of e-waste disposal and recycling, we can get excited by how far we’ve come; and, at the same time, discouraged by how far we still have to go.
Looking at the electronic waste challenge globally is daunting with disturbing levels of disparity among countries. Some, like Scandinavian countries, have implemented very successful models. Others, like Canada, have underperforming programs that are being restructured to become more efficient. While many are still struggling with unsuitable regulations, infrastructures and budgets, most countries in Asia are among those.
A few cases in the e-waste global landscape
Asian domestic e-waste generation
The high population, combined with a penetration and replacement rate of electronic devices catching up to the level of western countries, explain the 63% growth of domestic e-waste generation between 2010 and 2015 in Asia. With the exception of Hong Kong, there is virtually no regulations or proper infrastructures to process electronic waste in most Asian countries. Individuals and groups seeking to make a living out of this colossal e-waste market results in an informal organization of workers scrapping the landfills. The town of Guiyu, in the Chinese province of Guangdong, has become the largest electronic recycling center of China with 2/3 of its 150,000 inhabitants involved in the informal recycling market. One of the issues is locals are unaware of how to safely handle electronic waste. They use rudimentary techniques and tools to recover materials, such as burning cables to recover copper; which are not only harmful to the environment, but pose a significant risk for their health and safety.
Western e-waste shipped to Asia
Furthermore to their domestic production, and despite the Chinese ban on e-waste import in 2002, the Asian region still receives a significant portion of western countries’ electronic waste, increasing the amount being processed by unqualified and unprotected workers. The logic behind exporting electronic waste to Asia is that, as a manufacturing center, there is a need for materials such as copper, gold, plastic and metal, to be recovered from used devices and recycled to mass-produce new products. The flaw in that logic is that the lack of local infrastructures, regulations and workers’ knowledge does not allow for safe efficient recycling processes, which impacts negatively the quality of recovered materials, in addition to contributing to the landfills crisis, the pollution of air, soil, water and food supplies, and be hazardous for the health of workers.
The Canadian search for a better way
In Canada, specifically in Ontario, we are lucky enough to have had e-waste recycling programs and regulations for years. It helps divert retired electronic products from Canadian and overseas landfills, so they can be disassembled and recycled. But these programs, that focus the financial responsibility (Ontario Environmental Handling Fees) and the act of recycling on consumers, are underperforming. The main reason is a lack of awareness around electronic waste disposal and recycling options despite the promotional effort from provincial agencies, like the Ontario Electronic Stewardship Program. The coming revision of this program follows the direction of the Ontario Waste Free Act shifting responsibility on the manufacturers and distributors. The hope is to have them offer take back programs, and modify designs to reduce waste and facilitate recycling.
What does the future of electronics recycling hold?
Complex products require qualified workers to be recycled
Electronics manufacturers are producing increasingly complex products with sophisticated and compact design. For the recycling industry, it translates into the need for engineered processes and highly trained workers, as safe work practices in disassembly increases in complexity.
Regulatory shift to circular economy
This Research & Development quest to attract users with high capability technology in compact pieces of equipment will soon be combined with new concerns. Effectively, the trend that sees regulations and recycling programs shift towards circular economy, following the Scandinavian models, will most likely generate another wave of product design development. The purpose is quite simple, by increasing the financial and social responsibility of manufacturers and distributors in recycling programs, regulatory bodies are encouraging companies manufacturing electronic devices to reconsider product and packaging design with end of life and recycling front and center. It will then be in the best interest of those companies to make the recycling process easy and effective.
In addition to the financial incentive previously mentioned, a product designed in anticipation of its own waste management represents a substantial public relation card for electronic devices brands. As the Zero Waste movement develops, substantial segments of consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about their impact on the environment. A quick search using #ZeroWaste on Twitter or Instagram shows an increasing number of people are inclined to modify their consumption and/or buying habits to adhere to more environmentally friendly practices.
How can we make a difference?
Raising awareness around e-waste disposal and recycling best practices is the great way to have a positive impact on the environment, you can encourage your employer to get involved or spread the word in your community.
When choosing an electronic recycling facility, make sure the company:
- is working in accordance with local and international environmental regulations,
- has the required permits,
- operates to industry best practices standards,
- is mindful of the health and safety of their employees, providing adequate infrastructures, protective equipment and training.
Reference article: http://www.eco-business.com/opinion/electronic-waste-in-asia-is-piling-up/