E-waste Goes Underground

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Having the latest and greatest is one of the joys of living in the age of technology. It’s also the source of masses of e-waste being buried underground as landfill in China, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh and Africa.

Recycling of cardboard, paper and plastic is making some progress in developed countries, but e-waste is close to being out of control with 42 million tonnes of e-waste thrown out in 2014. Enough to fill a conga line of lorries from New York to Tokyo. The UN Environment Program predicts the amount of e-waste will grow to 50 million tonnes by 2017.

But it’s not just the amount of e-waste being generated that’s problematic. According to a new UN report, most of the e-waste is breaching recycling regulations in the country’s disposing of it.

International laws prohibit the export of hazardous waste from developed countries to developing ones but companies are bending these rules by deliberately and wrongly labelling e-waste as second-hand goods or even scrap metal and then dumping or shipping 90% of it to developing countries.

In countries such as China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh where most of the e-waste ends up there is basic recycling but most of the waste ends up in landfill or incinerated releasing toxins into the atmosphere causing public health hazards.

The best hope of change seems to be in the relationship between the consumer and the brand. Apple for example, has shown itself to be responsive to public concerns about work conditions in its factories in China. Apple has also been proactive in setting ambitious 100% renewable energy targets for its operations globally.

Apple has a strong recycling program for e-waste including provision for handling the products of other manufacturers as well as its own iPods, mobile phones, computers, monitors and batteries. Apple’s partnerships with conservation groups to promote sustainable forestry practices for cardboard to make the unboxing experience environmentally friendly is heartening.