World groaning under mountain of e-trash

opinion December 19, 2013 00:00

By The Nation

On average, each of us throws away almost 6 kilos of electronic goods per year, increasing the burden on health and the environment

The world generated almost 49 million tonnes of electronic waste last year and that amount is expected to jump by a third to 65.4 million tonnes annually by 2017.
Tracking that rise with growing alarm is the Solving the E-Waste Problem (Step) Initiative, a partnership of the United Nations, governments, industry, non-governmental and science organisations. 
Fuelling concern is that for the first time, emerging economies have overtaken Western nations in dumping electronic goods. Last year, the West produced 23.5 million tonnes of e-waste, while the rest of the world accounted for 25.4 million tonnes. By 2017, e-trash in emerging economies is expected to hit 36.7 million tonnes annually, compared with 28.6 million tonnes in the West. 
As the e-waste mountain grows, so does the impact on the environment and human health. The electronic goods we throw away are rich in natural resources including valuable metals, but also contain substances hazardous to humans. 
E-waste comprises discarded electrical and electronic devices – mostly old computers, office electronic equipment, entertainment devices, mobile phones, television sets and refrigerators. 
Rapid product innovations and replacement, especially in telecom and office equipment, combined with the migration from analogue to digital technologies, is fuelling the increase. Moreover, economies of scale have generated lower prices, which has increased global demand for products that eventually end up as e-waste. The trend among young consumers to buy new devices as soon as the latest models arrive has left a glut of unused later-generation devices that is feeding the e-trash mountain.
Thailand contributed an estimated 378,620 tonnes to the pile last year, or about 5.87 kilograms per person, according to Step’s latest E-waste World Map. We are now catching up fast with the world average of 7 kilograms per person per year.
We consumers can take an active role in tackling the growing e-waste problem by observing the three “R”s: repairing, recycling and reusing. Instead of dumping equipment when it is broken, we can extend its lifespan by getting it repaired. Meanwhile, old electronics such as computers can be donated to schools, temples or other organisations for reuse. 
We can also help by selling or donating our defunct electronics for recycling, which can extract valuable resources and precious materials such as gold and silver from e-waste. However, e-waste also contains various hazardous materials, such as cadmium, lead and mercury. We need proper methods of processing in order to prevent damage to the health of workers involved and to the local environment.
The bottom line is that extending the life of our electronic gadgets and goods via reusing and recycling is good for our wallets, our economy and the environment. To support this ethos, the authorities can also help by enforcing the laws to ensure that recycling and processing of e-waste do not pose dangers to health or the environment.