Hazards of E-waste Mis-management on Health

The article involves details of health hazards involved in recycling of E-waste without any safety measures.

(Daily bruin)

Do you prefer buying a new phone every year? Or changing your gadgets to the latest one? If yes, you are potentially generating some e-waste. What do you do with the old, non-functioning, or discarded gadgets? We often buy things that make our daily life easy and comfortable, regardless of what could be the disposal process involved. A lot of large household equipment like washing machines, dishwashers, and refrigerators is bought and often changed frequently to suit our comfort. Similarly, medical equipment used in hospitals, electronic machines used in industries, and a lot of technical equipment goes into making our workspace workable. These electronic items, which are no longer used or basically thrown away are known as e-waste. India is one of the largest producers and receivers of e-waste in the world.  Most of this e-waste goes to the dumping ground but only some amount of it gets recycled. 

India is the third-largest producer of E-waste in the world. Over 3.23 million metric tons of e-waste are generated annually in the country. There is an undisclosed amount of e-waste which is either generated or imported from countries. According to 'Global e-waste monitor 2020', 53.6 million tons of electronic waste were generated worldwide in 2019, of which only 17.4% were recycled. More than 95% percent of e-waste processing is handled by the informal sector. These are collected and processed by the usual kabadiwallas or ragpickers before taking them to the recycling ground.

The e-waste that goes to the dumping site is sometimes completely obsolete, and sometimes, it has a reusability value. However, all the e-waste that goes to the dumping site is supposed to be recycled. A large amount of waste that is primarily labelled as "e-waste" is actually not waste at all, but rather it is the whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for materials recovery. Only 12.5% of e-waste is currently recycled. The process of e-waste recycling includes a collection of waste materials, and then transporting them to the recycling facility. And then, the e-waste is sorted and shredded, further, the existing magnet and water are separated before preparing it for sale as a recycled material. The process of dismantling and sorting is mostly manually carried out without any protective gear and there is no proper system of using machines or technology to get the recycling done. Since the people involved in the e-waste recycling are the ones who right from picking to final recycling do all of it without proper safety measures, they are the ones who have to bear what comes as an aftereffect of recycling directly.

The electronic items are made up of different types of metals, alloys, and plastic materials. These materials carry different types of minerals and gasses which makes it easier for the device to perform its functions. While it is pertinent that the process of manufacturing one electronic device is carried out with utmost care and safety. It is exactly how the disposal process should be carried out as well. But unfortunately, in countries like India where all of these processes are manual and mostly handled without any protective gear, the idea of taking care or maintaining safety measures is highly questionable. These gasses can be very harmful and can have immense health effects on the individual who is involved in the process.

A lot of small and minute pieces of e-waste are destroyed by burning in an open space which releases a lot of toxic gasses into the air. These gasses when inhaled have excruciating effects on human lungs, eyes, and different parts of the body. There are also tiny particles of plastic that get mixed with the air and soil and hence end up polluting our environment. Elements like lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, copper, nickel, lithium, beryllium, plastics, heavy metals, etc. from the motherboard, ion battery, copper wires, batteries, circuits, cables, and chips, glass panels, computer monitors can affect children and adults. It can damage brain development, damage the kidney, and lungs, affects the respiratory system, can cause bronchitis, and lung, cause neural damage and eventually affect overall health. This also has irreversible damage like cancer, neurological damage, and decreased IQs in small children.

A 2019 joint report “A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot” calls for a new vision for e-waste based on the circular economy concept, whereby a regenerative system can minimize waste and energy leakage. The report supports the work of the E-waste Coalition, which includes the ILO, ITU, UNEP, UNIDO, UNITAR, UNU, and Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions. While there is a less organized system around the handling and treatment of e-waste in India, it is encouraging to see that a lot of private-sector small companies are coming forward with the required technology and assistance around the treatment of e-waste. Some of them also help in picking up the waste from door to door and recycling it in a systematized order, reducing the hazards that it could bring to human health and eventually to the overall environment. A new roadmap to reduce the hazard and work to create a sustainable environment by taking track throughout an e-waste lifecycle is needed. The government should intervene with the procedural policies of creating a safe environment for everyone. 

Every electronic device ever produced has a carbon footprint, so, it is not only the disposal process that taxes the environment but the production process also adds to polluting the environment. The process does not only affect a human directly but has a slow effect on the overall environment by mixing toxins in the air, water, and soil which then end up affecting all the living creatures altogether in the long run.

Written By:

Saroj Sharma

Saroj has an experience of over 9 years working in the development sector as a social worker, educator and an independent researcher. She has worked extensively with the marginalized community in India and Nepal. She is an avid reader and takes a profound interest in writing, preferably human stories.

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