E-Waste: How it Could Affect You

Thinking of throwing your old phone away? You might want to read this first.

The moment you put a phone in the rubbish bin, it becomes e-waste which, if you didn’t know, is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. Old and worn out smartphones, computers, and other electronic gadgets eventually find their way into makeshift workshops. There, their valuable metals are extracted, and the remainder of these are thrown in landfills.

Problem solved? Hardly. The rate by which e-waste is generated is way faster than the rate these are processed in workshops and landfills. Recent studies have shown how global levels of e-waste have risen as much as 8% in a matter of two years, which is an alarming rate, according to the UN. The growth of e-waste poses a significant health and environmental risks wherever they are found, because they contain substances that have the potential to cause massive harm if treated inadequately.

The bad news is, most of it is not even documented, and are not treated with proper recycling methods. As much as 90% of them end up being bathed in acid, which is a relatively popular way to extract metals from e-waste. It’s the most efficient way, and also the most dangerous, since the reactions from this process generate harmful chemicals and toxic fumes. The chemicals sometimes find their way into the drains, the sea, and the water supply, effectively poisoning entire populations, while the fumes contaminate the air.

Communities exposed to the contaminated water and air pay the ultimate price of increased risk of cancers, birth defects, and a host of mutagenic disorders. Countries in Africa, like Ghana, are disproportionately affected by e-waste contaminants, given that they receive a whopping 60-90% of the 50 million tonnes of e-waste generated globally with the aid of transnational crime gangs. Asian countries, too, are having their own reckoning with e-waste. In recent months, Thailand had to deal with a health crisis arising from seepage of harmful e-waste chemicals into the water supply. The recycling company conducting the improper disposal was promptly closed down.

The WHO warns that children are especially vulnerable to the health risks that come with e-waste, noting that “As they are still growing, children’s intake of air, water, and food in proportion to their weight is significantly increased compared to adults – and with that, the risk of hazardous chemical absorption.”

The good news is you can help slow down the growth of e-waste by holding on to your gadgets and appliances a bit longer – or upgrading to a refurbished phone. When you go refurbished, it’s one less smartphone in the landfills, and one step closer to solving the e-waste epidemic.