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Incoming: E-waste—and Lots of It

Updated: Feb 11, 2020

By Ashley Chon

 


The air is dusty and smells of burning plastic and circuit boards as well as acid

caused by metal picking. Choking fumes fraught with toxic materials make it

impossible to breath. The soil is incapable of providing nutrients to support the growth of crops. No matter how many miles one can see, mounds upon mounds of trash shadow the barren land along with the dark clouds of smoke coming from burning trash. Sounds of clanging metal, the crackling of fire when in contact with plastic combined with the low murmurs are the only sounds that hint the existence of humans. Residents here manually disassemble trash that they have not even produced for a living. Where could this devastating site possibly be? Welcome to Guiyu, China, the global hub for e-waste.


E-waste consists of discarded electrical or electronic devices. So much e-waste is produced that residents of countries including China, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Ghana are receiving vast quantities of e-waste to disassemble manually. This e-waste is not being produced in these countries. It is being shipped and dumped from more developed countries, including Great Britain and the United States. In fact, Great Britain independently ships over 1.37 million tons of e-waste to multiple developing countries per year. [1] To make matters worse the numbers are increasing. Global e-waste has risen by 5% over two years with just 20% being recycled. [2] Little do many Americans know, however, that the majority of the United States’ e-waste goes to places like Guiyu.


Guiyu, China is home to 150,000 people [3] who work every day manually disassembling the e-waste generated by other countries to earn only $5 a day. [4] Breaking down everything from old televisions to flip phones by hand truckload after truckload, residents of Guiyu have a big job to fulfill. E-waste contains valuable materials such as gold, copper, zinc, beryllium, and tantalum [5] that can be reused and are of value. Although these materials are best extracted, it must be done in a safe fashion that protects both humans and the environment.


Many do not realize that the improper disposal of electronics affects both the environment and human health, as can be seen in the release of toxins in Guiyu’s air, water, and ground. When e-waste is burned, a fine, particulate matter of hydrocarbons is released and damages the air. For example, a British documentary called Welcome to Lagos showed inhabitants burning wires in open air to obtain the copper embedded inside. [6] Studies have shown that this matter is linked to pulmonary and cardiovascular disease. [7] This act also leaves humans more prone to harmful UV rays that can result in comas, seizures, damage to the kidneys or liver, or irregular heart rhythms. [8] Current processes to extract such valuable materials not only impact the health of the environment; they also eventually impact the health of the workers. Not only do current practices release dangerous particles into the air, dangerous chemicals also leach into the soil. This contaminated soil is infested with so many heavy metals that it cannot sustain the growth of crops. [9] Through the soil, some of these chemicals reach groundwater. This groundwater eventually makes its way up to the surface and forms small ponds of water or streams. Local communities often depend on these bodies of water, which puts residents and animals at risk of cancer and lead poisoning. [9] In addition, these diseases are occurring in poor, developing countries, where the health care system may not reach those who are really in need of it. How will the Earth and its residents continue to survive with such conditions?


The impacts e-waste has on humans and the environment are clear, but one must examine the cause of the abundance of e-waste to be able to find an effective solution. E-waste is often categorized into three main causes: development in technology, human mentality, and accessibility to proper disposal. Development in technology has caused people to constantly discard their old devices and buy the newest one. With newer and faster technology coming out every year, the average lifespan of a phone is a mere two years. [10] Meanwhile, the old phone will most likely end up in one of three places: the trash, the back of a drawer, or an e-waste center.


In addition to the development in technology, human mentality is another major cause of the e-waste problem. Materialistic Western consumers demand the latest products. “In our society, we always have to have the new, best product,” says Aaron Blum, co-founder and chief operating officer of ERI (Electronic Recyclers International). [11] Additionally, studies have shown that owning a new possession does not mean long-term satisfaction; in fact, consumers will constantly desire newer possessions. This is called the Diderot Effect. [12] Unfortunately, this demand for the latest, greatest product has led to a leap in global e-waste production: an 8% increase in the last two years alone. [13]


Unfortunately, consumers are generally ignorant of the unpleasant realities of what happens after a device is replaced and upgraded. Even if we properly recycle electronics, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of old devices will go to places like Guiyu, China.


Clearly, an overhaul of the e-waste industry cycle is needed – society must determine a global solution. Many believe that a circular economy may be the best solution. A circular economy is a system where a product would always go back to the company which manufactured it. [14] This solves both the problem of the lack of accessibility to properly dispose of devices as well as the human nature to always have something new. Companies, wanting to interest more customers, will be encouraged to make their product more accessible to return. It will also provide consumers with constant new products because after returning their old device, they can trade it in for a newer and better product. But how will a circular economy be implemented? If the government were to give a tax break for companies that agree to host a leasing-only program for devices and have a high sales tax for those who decide to buy electronics instead of leasing them, both consumers and companies would have an incentive to take part in a circular economy. This solution could transform the lives of those living in Guiyu and other developing countries where residents disassemble e-waste for a living.


Fortunately, there is still hope for Guiyu with a circular economy. For now, local Guiyu authorities have invested $233 million to refurbish the city. Though the living conditions have improved, Guiyu residents claim their salaries have dropped immensely due to the extreme amount of money authorities used to refurbish the city. [4] Clearly, this fix is only a temporary solution. This industrial park Guiyu residents are currently living in can be improved if companies pitched in and supported a circular economic system that involved a leasing-only solution. Society has to understand that there’s a lot of e-waste that must be eliminated and circular economy is the best and most efficient solution.


Works Cited

Vidal, John. “Toxic 'e-Waste' Dumped in Poor Nations, Says United Nations.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Dec. 2013

Ununiversity. “E-Waste Rises 8% by Weight in 2 Years as Incomes Rise, Prices Fall.” United Nations University

Levina, Sofya. “Can You Spot Your Old PC at One of the World's Largest Electronic Dumps? (Photo Gallery).” Slate Magazine, Slate, 23 Sept. 2015

“China's Notorious e-Waste Dumping Ground Cleaner but Poorer.” South China Morning Post, 22 Sept. 2017

“Precious Metal Removal from Electronic Components.” Concept Management UK

“BBC TV Blog: Welcome to Lagos - It'll Defy Your Expectations.” BBC, BBC,

Tellez-Plaza, Maria, et al. “Environmental Metals and Cardiovascular Disease.” BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), BMJ Publishing Group Ltd., 29 Aug. 2018,

“Hydrocarbons: The Deadly Poison Found in Everyone's Home.” Connecticut Poison Control Center

Admin, Website. “Impacts of E-Waste on the Environment - E-Terra Technologies Limited.” E, 25 May 2017

Ronis, Dave. “How Long Can a Smartphone Really Last?” HYLA Mobile Device Trade-In Solutions Blog

Semuels, Alana. “Electronic Waste Is Becoming a Global Environmental Problem.” Time, Time, 23 May 2019

James Clear. “The Diderot Effect: Why We Want Things We Don't Need.” James Clear, 12 June 2018

“United Nations Assessment on Global e-Waste Finds an 8% Rise over 2 Years, with Only 20% Being Recycled.” OpenGov Asia, 1 Feb. 2019

“WRAP and the Circular Economy.” WRAP and the Circular Economy | WRAP UK, 24 Jan. 2013

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