Have you ever taken a moment to count the number of old mobile phones tucked away in a drawer at your house? It's a common habit for many of us to either accumulate or dispose of old electrical products instead of repairing them, resulting in a rapidly increasing pile of electronic waste.
According to the United Nations Global E-waste Monitor report, 75 million metric tonnes of electrical garbage or "e-waste" will be generated globally by 2030. It's alarming not only because many of the things we've thrown away could be used again, cutting down on the need to create more, but also because e-waste frequently contains dangerous substances that can contaminate the environment.
While managing e-waste is a significant challenge worldwide, it poses an even greater problem for developing countries.
What are the challenges?
The escalation of consumption
Developing countries are witnessing a surge in technological consumption, driven by factors such as increasing incomes, urbanization, and evolving lifestyles. The demand for electronic products, including smartphones, laptops, and televisions, has skyrocketed in these regions. As a result, waste streams are overrun with discarded and outdated electronic equipment, which makes the e-waste situation worse.
Take India, for example, the second-largest smartphone market in the world, where the usage of electronic devices is growing exponentially. Our urban population can't get enough of the newest gadgets, and this adds to the growing problem of e-waste.
Similarly, Nigeria, West Africa's most populous country, has seen an increase in e-waste production due to the country's expanding middle class and the desire for modern conveniences.
Infrastructure and Recycling Facility Deficits
Developing countries face immense challenges when it comes to dealing with the ever-increasing volume of e-waste, primarily due to their limited infrastructure and inadequate recycling facilities. Insufficient systems and resources hamper their ability to effectively manage and dispose of electronic waste.
A striking example of the e-waste predicament can be seen in Ghana, where a significant portion of e-waste finds its way to Agbogbloshie, a famous electronic waste dumpsite. Due to the absence of proper recycling facilities, e-waste is often burned as a means of disposal, resulting in the release of toxic fumes and pollutants into the environment. This poses severe risks to both the ecosystem and human health. Also, the workers – often children, who are involved in dismantling and extracting valuable metals from e-waste, are exposed to hazardous substances without adequate protective measures.
The Informal and Unregulated Recycling Sector
Developing countries often rely on informal and unregulated recycling sectors to manage e-waste. These sectors utilize primitive methods of dismantling and extracting valuable materials from electronic devices, increasing the threat to human health and the environment.
A prime example of such practices can be observed in Guiyu, a town in China infamous for its unregulated e-waste recycling activities. In Guiyu, Electronic gadgets are manually disassembled using primitive methods without employing proper safety measures. This dangerous process exposes workers, including women and children, to a substantial risk of exposure to toxic substances. Prolonged exposure to these harmful chemicals can result in neurological disorders, respiratory problems, organ damage, and even increased cancer risks.
Inadequate Legislation and Enforcement
One of the major obstacles to effectively managing e-waste in developing countries is the lack of comprehensive legislation and enforcement mechanisms. Limited resources, corruption, and various other factors hinder the implementation of effective regulations that can address the growing e-waste problem.
Nigeria is an example where existing regulations pertaining to e-waste management, such as the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), have been established. However, weak enforcement has resulted in widespread illegal dumping and improper disposal practices. The absence of strict monitoring and enforcement allows for unethical practices and the continuation of harmful practices also hinders the development of a formal and regulated e-waste recycling industry.
Another example is Bangladesh. The country has enacted the Hazardous Waste (e-waste) Management Rules, 2021 to regulate the management of e-waste. However, the implementation of these rules has been slow, and a significant portion of e-waste still ends up in landfills, informal recycling sites, and unregulated markets. The lack of proper enforcement mechanisms, limited recycling facilities, and a lack of awareness among stakeholders contribute to the ineffective implementation of e-waste management policies in Bangladesh.
Lack of Awareness and Education
The lack of adequate awareness and education about the hazards of e-waste exacerbates the problem in developing countries. In many regions, individuals remain largely uninformed about the environmental and health risks that stem from the improper disposal and recycling of electronic devices.
One contributing factor to this lack of awareness is the rapid pace of technological advancement. As new electronic devices flood the market, there is often a stronger emphasis on promoting the latest features and functionalities rather than highlighting the potential environmental and health consequences of improper e-waste management. Consequently, consumers may not fully understand the long-term impact of their actions when it comes to discarding or recycling electronic devices. Developing countries also face challenges in disseminating knowledge about proper e-waste management practices, particularly in remote areas or among marginalized communities.
The Global E-Waste Trade
Developing countries encounter additional obstacles when it comes to the international trade of e-waste. A significant portion of both the e-waste that is legally collected or recycled and the unreported e-waste is transported across borders under the guise of second-hand products or non-waste items.
Transboundary flows of e-waste have become a major concern for both exporter and importer countries. While the importing and exporting of e-waste are only regulated for hazardous waste by both national and international policies, laws, and regulations, the unregulated trade of e-waste, often mixed with used electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), can also facilitate corporate or organized crime. E-waste has been identified as one of the top three waste categories illicitly traded between 2018 and 2020, with shipments frequently mislabelled or falsely declared as used EEE, new EEE, household goods, personal belongings, or other non-waste items, rather than being classified as e-waste.
Due to lenient regulations and lower costs, these nations frequently become destinations for the disposal of e-waste originating from developed countries.
For instance, Ghana illegally imports e-waste from countries like the United States, Europe, and Asia. These shipments are often disguised as second-hand electronic goods or donations but contain non-functional or outdated devices. The arrival of imported e-waste worsens the already existing challenges that developing countries encounter in effectively managing their own electronic waste.
Additionally, the informal recycling industry in poorer nations sometimes uses imported e-waste to extract valuable components. This practice hinders the development of ecologically friendly and sustainable recycling methods in addition to continuing the cycle of inappropriate disposal.
Limited Financial Resources
Developing countries often face financial constraints when it comes to investing in adequate e-waste management infrastructure and recycling facilities. Meeting the financial requirements and establishing the necessary facilities to effectively manage the increasing quantity of e-waste becomes a significant hurdle, especially when there are other important socio-economic issues that require attention.
In most developing countries, such as India, the budget allocated for waste management, including e-waste, is often inadequate. Consequently, waste collection and recycling systems remain insufficient, leading to the accumulation of e-waste in open dumping sites or unregulated landfills.
Addressing the challenges
Addressing the e-waste challenge in developing countries requires collaborative efforts and initiatives at various levels. Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the private sector, and international organizations must join forces to develop comprehensive strategies and implement effective solutions.
Several successful initiatives have already emerged:
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has launched the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership which aims to enhance data collection and monitoring of e-waste on a global scale. This initiative assists developing countries in assessing their e-waste generation, and recycling rates, and identifying areas for improvement.
An international agreement known as the Basel Convention has also been created to control the transboundary transportation of hazardous waste, including e-waste. Developing countries can benefit from the provisions of this convention which encourage environmentally sound management of e-waste and restrict the importation of hazardous waste.
The establishment of e-waste recycling facilities in developing countries, like the Accra Recycling and Composting Plant in Ghana and the Attero Recycling Facility (Roorkee) and Eco Recycling Limited facility (Pune) in India offers a formal and regulated platform for managing electronic waste. These facilities employ safe and environmentally friendly recycling practices, ensuring the proper disposal of hazardous components.
But are these initiatives enough? The effectiveness of these initiatives in managing e-waste in developing countries like India is still subject to debate. The international regulations on e-waste, like the Basel Convention, have some limitations that affect how well they manage e-waste in developing countries. One limitation is that there is a lack of universal ratification, resulting in uneven enforcement of regulations. There are also loopholes and illegal trade in e-waste that undermine the control measures.
Insufficient resources and capacity in developing countries also hinder their ability to implement and enforce the regulations effectively. Moreover, technology is constantly changing, and the regulations may not keep up with the latest developments. To effectively manage e-waste, a more comprehensive approach is needed that goes beyond just international regulations.