E-Waste in the Post-COVID World
Our Love Affair With Electronics
It’s almost impossible to imagine life these days without electronics. From cleaning our homes to telecommuting to buying lunch our generation has an appetite for the best and newest gadgets, giving rise to the problem of increasing electronic waste or e-waste.
A record-setting 53.6 metric tons of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2019, according to Global E-waste Statistics Partnership or GESP. (Check out their website at https://globalewaste.org for a real-time e-waste counter.) The top producers in their study turned out to be Asia, the Americas, and Europe.
Asia is undoubtedly a glutton for electronics. In a study published by the Global NEST Journal, the Philippines discarded an estimated 22 million cellphones in 2016. Since most of these phones are cheap, they may need to be replaced after a couple of years of service. But living in a country where money can be hard to come by, it’s not as easy to let go.
In my interview with Francisco Hirao of Envirocycle, an e-waste recycling company, he said it takes Filipinos a substantial amount of time to buy gadgets and appliances so they want to recoup a little bit of that money back. There are people on the streets of Metro Manila who buy second-hand electronics for their parts so it’s not so hard to get cash for trash. However, some junk shops are not fully equipped to recycle e-waste.
“They don’t care after they get the circuit board,” Hirao explained. “For them, it’s the only thing of value. They will smelt it and they don’t care about the plastic. They don’t recycle the CRT that has mercury. They’ll just bury it in the ground and forget about it.”
To prevent the reckless scrapping of electronic waste, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the Philippines accredited e-waste treatment facilities like HMR-Envirocycle that can responsibly handle the hazardous by-products of recycling.
Cynthia Calma, Pollution Officer at Envirocycle, broke down their e-waste recycling process as follows:
“We make sure that there are no electronic equipment disposed of in landfills. We reuse and remarket everything that we recover from the items we receive. Old televisions, cameras and computers for example are dismantled and segregated according to their use and we determine whether they are recyclable or not. We divide them into ferrous and non-ferrous, plastic, plastic circuit boards, integrated circuits and then residual waste.”
Envirocycle also handles used lead acid batteries, ink toners and cartridges, busted flourescent lights and other contaminated wastes. These types of materials contain e-waste flows that leach into the ground when dismantled in fly-by-night recycling centers in Manila. Worst of all, their workers don’t even have the proper gear to handle hazardous waste and get sick by exposure.
“These toxic substances seep into the soil and affect nearby water systems with heavy metals that include mercury and cadmium,” Calma notes. “It’s just like throwing away a box of hazardous waste into the environment.”
The Envirocycle facility in Laguna has a crusher that traps these toxic elements and sends them to the proper channels abroad for treatment and disposal. Anything that can be salvaged is refurbished or repaired, then sold or donated to local communities. The facility also invites schools to show students how to properly dispose of electronic waste.
“It’s just like throwing away a box of hazardous waste into the environment.”
Drowning In A Tsunami Of E-Waste
While it is not so clear yet how COVID-19 will affect e-waste management, we already know that there is a surge in the purchase of electronic devices and home appliances as more people need to work or study from home. On the other hand, supply disruptions hit the electronics industry hard because of lockdowns. Recycling facilities were also shut down and unable to gather equipment from their collection points.
It is hard for us to curb our appetite for phones and 24/7 connectivity especially with the need to reach out and be informed these days, but with the leading manufacturers struggling to get their products made maybe it’s time for us to hold on a little longer to that two year-old gadget. Or buy a refurbished one that may not be the newest model but does the job anyway. With the world already reeling from the pandemic, we don’t need another global reckoning in the form of what the UN calls “a tsunami of e-waste.”
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2020 Marjorie Dumont