E-Waste: What a Disgrace!

In today’s society, we upgrade our cellphones, laptops and other gadgets on a fairly regular basis. But what becomes of our old devices when we replace them?
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By Hayley Axford
In today’s society, we upgrade our cellphones, laptops and other gadgets on a fairly regular basis. But what becomes of our old devices when we replace them? Most people tend to hoard them, believing they will use them again, perhaps as a backup, should their current devices get lost or go in for repairs. Instead, they gather dust in storage, having no purpose, until we eventually put them into black bags or boxes and toss it along with the rest of our rubbish. We don’t give any thought as to where these discarded gadgets end up. Neither do most manufacturers of these devices.
“Electronic waste”, also known as e-waste, involves all discarded electric or electronic devices with battery power, circuitry or electric elements. This includes computers, air conditioners, office electronic equipment, mobile phones, television sets, refrigerators, washing machines etc.
Following research that found that more than 50, 000 tons of electronic devices are thrown away in South Africa annually, it is evident that e-waste is becoming a problem in the country. According to a report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), by 2020, e-waste in South Africa and China will have jumped by 200% and 400% from their 2007 levels. The USA is the world leader in producing electronic waste, tossing away about 3 million tons every year. In 2010, China was second to the USA, producing 2.3 million tons domestically. Despite banning e-waste imports, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries. Other developing countries, like Ghana and Pakistan, also have to suffer the brunt of first world e-waste dumping.  
 Electronic waste is a globalised business, with about 70-80% of it being shipped to landfills in many developing countries, where it is sorted and sold for scrap metal. It is often burnt to extract materials, which is both harmful to people and the surrounding environment. E-waste from electronic equipment contains dangerous chemicals like lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury and brominated flame retardants. Cadmium, for example, is found in the batteries and monitors of personal computers, and is extremely toxic to both humans and the environment. If we do not dispose of gadgets and devices properly, these hazardous materials have a high risk of polluting the air, contaminating the soil and leaching into water sources. Health risks range from kidney disease, brain damage and genetic mutations. In China’s Guiyu, scientists discovered the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. This is due to their drinking water that is so contaminated; villagers now have to fetch water from other towns to drink. Seven out of ten children in the villages of Guiyu have too much lead in their bodies, with 82% of them testing positive for lead poisoning. High levels of lead in the children’s blood can impact their IQ and development of the central nervous system. The highest concentrations of lead were found in the children whose parents have workshops that deal with circuit boards, while the lowest concentration was amongst those who recycled plastic.
Benefits of Recycling
Recycling raw materials from end-of-life electronics is the most effective solution to the growing e-waste dilemma. Most electronic devices contain a variety of materials, including metals that can be recovered for future uses. By dismantling these devices and providing reuse possibilities, air and water pollution caused by hazardous disposal is avoided. Recycling also reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacturing of new products.
The metal of these electronic devices can be used for many things, if extracted properly. Cellphone batteries and metals inside the phone can be used to make new phones. The metal can also be used for jewellery, art and other electronics. 
South Africa has a number of recycling companies that handle e-waste:
  • Desco - offers E-Waste collection, processing and recycling services to electronic equipment importers, the IT industry, telecommunications industries, corporations, government, as well as educational and medical institutions. 
  • Africa E-Waste – offers companies to have their electronic waste disposed of in both a legal and environmentally friendly way.
  • Effortless Recycling – offers free collection of e-waste in Gauteng, e-waste recycling and destructive data recycling. The company will also award customers with an E-Waste Compliancy Certificate to show that their electronic waste is recycled correctly.
  • Computer Scrap Recycling – an E-WASA accredited company that provides a safe, complete, traceable end of life recycling solution for businesses, corporate organizations and government clients. 
Donate any electronic devices that are in working order instead of dumping it without knowing if they can still be used. In this way, you can reduce e-waste pollution and share technology with people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.