Taming the E-waste Health Hazards

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Emma Okonji writes that the move by the United Nation coalition to address the global health challenges emanating from the $62.5 billion annual e-waste will create healthy environment among nations

The global consumption of smart phones, computers and other electronic devices is on the increase. However, on the downside of it, the world is now seeing a growing tsunami of electronic waste (e-waste) that is posing danger to human health. Last week, seven United Nation (UN) entities came together to form a coalition, supported by the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, to better address global e-waste challenges.

The coalition is of the view that global e-waste is beginning to create health challenges through hazardous emissions from electronic devices that have expired and no longer in active use. Some of the devices like computers, mobile phones, tablets and electric home appliances, may have been discarded by the original owners, but instead of properly discarding them, some of the devices still find their ways to developing countries in Africa and Asia, where they are dumped to constitute health hazards to citizens living around the dump sites.
Disturbed by the $62.5 billion in materials lost in approximately 50 million tonnes of annual e-waste, the coalition, presented a common front in addressing the global issue.

Secretary-General, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Houlin Zhao, said: “ITU has been raising awareness and guiding efforts to reduce and rethink e-waste since 2011. So I am delighted to see that a movement to promote a circular economy for electronics is now gaining ground. Together, with newly created partnerships such as the United Nations E-waste Coalition, we can transform waste into wealth, and deliver development benefits to all.”

The strategy

In order to address the situation, the coalition came with a strategy and presented a joint report on the dangers of global e-waste. They were of the view that technologies of the fourth industrial revolution showed a huge potential that could lead to free and safe environment, better product tracking, take-back and recycling, and products sold as services.

The new joint report shows that the world now discards approximately 50 million tonnes of e-waste per year, greater in weight than all of the commercial airliners ever made, whereas only about 20 per cent is formally recycled. The United Nations University predicts e-waste could nearly triple to 120 million tonnes by 2050 if nothing changes.

The Executive Director, United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), Nikhil Seth, who commended the zeal of the coalition, said: “Working together with the UN coalition on e-waste presents a new paradigm shift and a new dispensation with tremendous opportunities to support countries march towards a cleaner and more sustainable way of managing e-waste. UNITAR recognises urgent needs in training and capacity building in the e-waste management value chain based on the national training needs assessment, and we are pleased to support this partnership and countries through our programmes.”

Value of global e-waste
In terms of material value, environmental experts have said global e-waste presents an opportunity worth over $62.5 billion per year, more than the GDP of most countries and three times the output of the world’s silver mines, yet this amount is lost annually because of lack of proper coordination of global e-waste recycling.

The coalition joint report calls for a new vision for electronics based on the circular economy and the need for collaboration with major brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), academia, trade unions, civil society and associations in a deliberative process to change the system.

The report points to the importance of new technologies, explaining that although e-waste is growing, technologies from the Internet of Things (IoT) to cloud computing show a huge potential and could lead to ‘dematerialization’ and better product tracking and recycling.

Major global brands, governments and other organisations are in support of the initiative with commitments and projects to address e-waste and build a circular economy.

The report, titled: “A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot,” noted that technologies such as cloud computing and the IoT support gradual ‘dematerialisation’ of the electronics industry.
The report also noted that material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains, will all be essential for future production.

Creating jobs from e-waste

Although e-waste is growing, technologies from IoT to cloud computing show a huge potential and could lead to the ‘dematerialisation’ of the electronics industry as well as better product tracking, take-back and recycling.
In many countries, e-waste recycling operations are expanding.

New and inclusive business models for managing e-waste are being established.
These have already generated thousands of decent jobs in safe conditions. Global experts are of the view that if the electronics sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide.

Going by the material value of e-waste alone that is worth $ 62.5 billion a year, which is more than the GDP of most countries in the world, extending the life of products and re-using components prevents this unnecessary waste and brings economic benefits.

“A system in which all discarded products are collected and then the materials or components reintegrated into new ones will reduce the need for new raw materials, waste disposal and energy, while creating economic growth, new ‘green’ jobs, and business opportunities,” experts said.

The experts added that harvesting the resources from used electronics, produces substantially less carbon-dioxide emissions than mining in the earth’s crust.
According to the joint report on e-waste, nations can seize the development opportunities of e-waste, if they play the game rightly.

“But more and more actors from the public and private sectors are needed to join this effort, as great things can happen when a wide variety of specialized individuals and groups are mobilized to work together towards a common vision. Together, with newly created partnerships like the United Nations E-waste Coalition, we can transform waste into wealth, and deliver development benefits to all,” the experts said.

Legislation and new partnerships

One of the global bodies, International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has been raising awareness and guiding efforts to reduce and rethink e-waste for several years now. Today, approximately 4.8 billion people or 66 per cent of the world’s population are now covered by e-waste legislation. That’s a large increase from just 44 per cent in 2014.

More and more actors have recently joined the fold to fight e-waste. These include: the United Nations E-waste Coalition, launched last year, which include a long and growing list of UN organisations such as ITU, UNEP, and ILO. The E-waste Coalition is supported by the private sector, as well as the World Economic Forum, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Together, the United Nations E-waste Coalition is working towards designing and proposing creative solutions to promote a circular economy for electronics where waste is designed out of the system.

Dangers of e-waste

The Director, Department of Environment, United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), Stephan Sicars, said: “E-waste is a growing global challenge that poses a serious threat to the environment and human health worldwide. To minimise this threat, UNIDO works with various UN agencies and other partners on a range of e-waste projects, all of which are underpinned by a circular economy approach.”

Unfortunately, only a small proportion, around 20 per cent, of e-waste is formally recycled. This results in global health and environmental risks, as well as the unnecessary loss of scarce and valuable natural materials.
The proper management of e-waste yields not just one, but multiple gains for development, according to experts views.

According to the recent coalition report on e-waste, many health and environmental risks are associated with improper disposal of e-waste.
Experts are of the view that the global amount of e-waste discarded every year weighs the equivalent of more than 125,000 jumbo jets. Of this total amount, 40 million tonnes of e-waste are discarded in landfill, burned or illegally traded and treated in a sub-standard way every year.

Waste, that said could contain substances that are hazardous to human health if not dealt with properly, including mercury, cadmium and lead, which can pollute water sources and food supply chains.
Electronic goods also have an impact on climate change. For example, manufacturing a tonne of laptops emits up to 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2.), and the total number of people working informally in the global e-waste sector is unknown.

According to ILO, the United Nations agency that sets international labour standard, in Nigeria, up to 100,000 people are thought to be working in the informal e-waste sector, while in China that number is thought to be 690,000.
ILO said sub-standard working conditions in the informal sector has led to adult and child workers, as well as their families, being exposed to many toxic substances.

Waste of scarce resources

Recent reports on e-waste said since e-waste contains many high-value and scarce materials, such as gold, platinum, and cobalt, improper recycling of discarded electronics results in a significant loss of scarce and valuable raw materials, and puts unnecessary pressure on our limited natural resources.
The problem is only expected to get worse when by 2050, the volume of e-waste, in the worst-case scenario, could top 120 million tonnes annually.

New solutions for waste-free electronics
The report stresses that products need to be designed for reuse, durability and eventually safe recycling.
This can be achieved through different business models including products as a service, instead of a one-off transaction, the business model shifts to one of an ongoing service, which incentivizes the manufacturer to ensure that all the resources are used optimally over a device’s lifecycle, sharing of assets, life extension and finally recycling.