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E‑waste: toxic techno trash

A huge amount of e-waste is produced globally: 57.4 million tonnes in 2021, according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Forum (WEEE). Where does all this waste go, what harm does it do to people and the environment and what toxic chemicals are involved?

In this article we explore the issues of e-waste and what consumers can do.

When we talk about the ‘life’ of an electronic device or gadget we tend to refer to the period of usefulness, the time when it’s in our hands, or on our desks, serving its purpose. The reality is that this is a brief period in the long journey taken by any device, a journey which often begins and ends with the exploitation of the world’s poorest.

An average smartphone, for example, may contain over 60 different types of metals, mined in various corners of the world, as well as plastics and ceramics.

This array of materials means that properly disposing of devices is complicated and fraught with issues. As a global society, we are currently accumulating electronic waste or e-waste at a rate of over 57 million tonnes every year.

About a quarter of this is IT equipment and screens (including televisions), and there are estimated to be over 100 million additional used devices stored in the attics and drawers of homes across the world.

Of this so-called ‘tsunami of waste’, around 20% is officially reported as properly collected and recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfills or in informal ‘recycling’ operations in developing countries, where the toxic chemicals used in production are released into the surroundings causing untold damage to human health and the environment.

Meanwhile, valuable minerals and complex components, extracted at such huge cost to the natural environment and human welfare, are wasted after only a short period of use.

The problem of e-waste

E-waste exports

International exports of e-waste occur as part of a wider global waste trade that is sadly symptomatic of global inequality and overconsumption in the 21st century.

Defective and unwanted items from Western countries often end up on the shores of developing countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, where they may be repaired and sold on to be used again.

Unusable items are taken directly to disposal sites where they are often dismantled and harvested for reusable materials by local workers.

Unlike in formal recycling centres, which use expensive machinery to separate materials from waste items, these informal ‘recycling centres’ are typically dumping grounds or warehouses in which components are frequently smashed apart and burned in the open air. This releases harmful substances, such as dioxins and furans, into the air causing serious health problems in workers and local people who are exposed to the fumes, and other toxins seep into the soil and water supplies.

Perhaps the most notorious of these ‘digital dumping grounds’ is in Agbogbloshie, on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, where a large scrap yard has developed next to a slum that is home to around 100,000 people. The featured image above shows a child in Accra running next to a fire where electronic cables and other electrical components are being burned in order to melt off the plastic and reclaim the copper wiring

The area and its association with e-waste has been the subject of numerous documentaries and publications and has been called “the most toxic area on the African continent” and the “world’s largest e-waste dump” with one documentary suggesting that it will “most probably be the final destination of the smartphone, the computer you buy today”.

These statements have been disputed, and some of the reports that focus on Agbogbloshie have been accused of oversimplifying what is a complex global problem. Many other e-waste processing sites exist across the developing world, particularly in China and South-East Asia. What is clear is that the toxic burden of the products we consume in the West has been shifted onto the world’s most vulnerable in a systematic way.

Various laws have been enacted across the world in a bid to stem the flow of toxic waste to the developing world. The Basel Convention is an international treaty that bans exports of hazardous waste, while China, India and Thailand have recently placed bans on e-waste imports to their countries. Another treaty, the Bamako Convention, is between African nations and prohibits the import into Africa of any hazardous waste.

Despite the regulations, studies have suggested e-waste continues to be exported from the EU – a recent study used GPS trackers to follow disposed of and non-functioning electronics devices from several EU states to their final destinations.

It found that around 6% of items ended up being exported, most likely illegally, with the most instances originating in the UK. Other major exporters such as the US have not ratified the Basel Convention, and similar studies have suggested that as much as much as 40% of the e-waste supposedly recycled in the U.S. was actually exported, mainly to Asia.

The sources of illegal exports are often difficult to trace due to complex waste disposal chains and trans-shipment networks, but it has been suggested  that items slip through the net by being labelled ‘repairable’ or ‘used’ goods rather than waste.

Royal Mint to start reusing gold from circuit boards

The Royal Mint wants to take the gold from discarded circuit boards in phones, TVs and computers and turn it into commemorative coins.

It was announced in 2021 that it is building a plant which will become operational in 2023 and process up to 90 tonnes of UK circuit boards a week. The metals will be recovered at room temperature using chemistry technology, rather than being sent overseas to be processed in high temperature smelters.

Designed for the dump?

Much effort has been made in recent years to address the growing problem of e-waste. NGOs and electronics manufacturers frequently promote the idea of a ‘circular economy’, whereby the value of components and raw materials is retained in a ‘closed-loop’ system of production.

Legislators have also made efforts to tackle the problem through Extended Producer Responsibility laws such as the EU’s WEEE Directive, which aim to make producers responsible for the products after use through takeback schemes or through additional charges added to the market price.

And yet, despite these efforts, e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and is on course to double by 2050 at the current rate. In many ways, the problem is inherent to the design and consumption of technological products.

The relentless demand for exciting new tech means that new and more advanced devices are released in rapid cycles – for example, in Western countries, we tend to use a smartphone for around 24 months before upgrading (although recent reports suggest the trend may be starting to reverse).

The right to repair

Defective devices are often simpler to replace than to repair, with smartphone, laptop and tablet designs increasingly moving towards sealed units, where even the battery is not replaceable by the average user. This is often referred to as built-in or planned obsolesence.

In 2018, Apple and Samsung were fined £10 million and £5 million respectively by the Italian authorities for ‘planned obsolescence’ built into their smartphones. According to Italy’s competition watchdog, operating system updates, which users were encouraged to accept, “caused serious malfunctions and significantly reduced performance, thus accelerating phones’ substitution”.

Companies have also been found to use techniques such as glueing essential parts of a phone or tablet together so, if the device was opened up, the parts would break; and copywriting schematics and manuals to keep them out of the public domain.

In the US, so-called right to repair legislation, intended to allow consumers to repair their own devices more easily, has been repeatedly lobbied against by tech companies. In April 2019, a right to repair bill was put forward in California, only to be prematurely pulled following lobbying by Apple and CompTIA, a trade organisation representing big tech companies.

It is reported that the lobbyist met directly with members of California's State Assembly’s Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, which was considering the bill, arguing that consumers might be at risk of hurting themselves if encouraged to open up their phones and attempt repairs themselves.

The sponsor pulled the bill following this corporate intervention, claiming that “manufacturers had sown enough doubt with vague and unbacked claims of privacy and security concerns”.

Modular phones

There are, of course, simple ways that manufacturers could help. The concept behind a modular phone is that the user can easily replace the different parts within. So, if the camera or another part breaks, you can order another one and fit it yourself with no need to buy a whole new phone or fork out large amounts of money on repairs.

Several years ago, Google began dipping its toes into the relatively uncharted water of modular phones with its Project Ara, but scrapped the project in 2016, reportedly as part of a broader move by the company to streamline its hardware products. Whether a modular phone will be made by one of the major firms is difficult to say.

On the other hand, the Fairphone website listed over 30 parts that users could purchase in order to replace various parts of its Fairphone, from the display screen to the daughterboard.

If you search the websites of most of the major mobile phone brands, such as Apple or Samsung, you will find little more on offer to add to your phone than a protective cover. Modular phones have great potential to improve the sustainability of the electronics sector, but it is in the interests of profit-hungry companies to keep us buying new products.

Toxic chemicals used in tech devices

Several substances used in the production of electronic devices are known to be toxic to human health and the natural environment: polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) become particularly damaging after a devices’ disposal, releasing highly toxic and carcinogenic dioxins when burned in incinerators or by workers in informal recycling operations.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals often used as a softener in PVC. Over time, they leak out of plastic materials into the surrounding environment and have been linked to a wide range of health problems affecting the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive systems.

Ethical Consumer rates electronics companies on their level of commitment to completely phasing out PVC, BFRs and phthalates, although we try to also be sensitive to complexities and to reward transparency. Different companies use different definitions and acceptable thresholds, and focusing solely on the phasing out of known toxics can risk rewarding companies that just swap one chemical for a lesser known but no less dangerous one.

For example, Apple receives our best rating in this category, although it openly declares that trace levels of toxics remain in certain products. However, it publicly discloses its thresholds for acceptable concentrations.

Huawei, on the other hand, simply makes a broad claim to have “banned the use of six harmful substances in our mobile phones, tablets, and wearables”. While this may sound superficially impressive, it says nothing about the presence of toxics in, say, Huawei’s charging cables, a key use of BFRs. Huawei received our worst rating.

TCO Certified Products

TCO Certified is a sustainability label for IT products, which takes into account a broad range of social and environmental factors in the lifecycle of a product.

For a product to be awarded the TCO Certified label, it must meet numerous criteria relating to both the design and manufacture including criteria on worker’s rights, conflict minerals, hazardous chemicals, user health and safety, durability, and recyclability.

Of the companies featured in our latest mobile phone and laptop guides, Acer, ASUS, Dell, Lenovo, HP and Samsung made TCO certified laptops whilst the Fairphone 4, and Real Me, were the only TCO Certified mobile phones. All these brands were awarded a Product Sustainability positive mark.

To find out if a specific model has the label, we recommend using the Product Finder on the TCO Certified website.

Additional research and reporting by Ruairidh Fraser.