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Electronic waste—an emerging public health risk?

The pace of change in technology is unrelenting. Electric and electronic products are outdated in the blink of an eye, consigned to the rubbish tip of history, and too often to the rubbish tip of the world. Electrical and electronic waste is the fastest growing stream of global waste and will continue to be dumped in those developing countries least equipped to deal with it properly under the guise of increasing access to and use of computers by less developed world-Africa?.

The production of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is one of the fastest growing global manufacturing activities. This development has resulted in an increase of waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE). Rapid economic growth, coupled with urbanization and growing demand for consumer goods, has increased both the consumption of EEE and the production of WEEE, which can be a source of hazardous wastes that pose a risk to the environment and to sustainable economic growth.

To address potential environmental problems that could stem from improper management of WEEE, many countries and organizations have drafted national legislation to improve the reuse, recycling and other forms of material recovery from WEEE to reduce the amount and types of materials disposed in landfills.

In Kenya, am not sure we are there yet despite having one of the fastest growing EEE consumers.

Recycling of waste electric and electronic equipment is important not only to reduce the amount of waste requiring treatment, but also to promote the recovery of valuable materials. EEE is diverse and complex with respect to the materials and components used and waste streams from the manufacturing processes.

Characterization of these wastes is of paramount importance for developing a cost-effective and environmentally sound recycling system.

Electronic waste—an emerging risk?

In 2004, more than 180 million personal computers (PCs) were sold worldwide. In the same year, an estimated 100 million obsolete PCs entered waste streams and were either recycled for the recovery of materials or finally disposed of. A PC may contain up to 4 g of gold and other valuable materials that can be recovered at a profit, particularly if the work is done in low-income countries. However, as is the case with almost all present-day electronic products, a PC also contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, and hexavalent chromium. In many parts of the world, both formal and informal recycling industries that deal with the rapidly growing streams of Waste

Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), or e-waste for short, have emerged.

Computers are only one type of WEEE. However, given the trend towards pervasive computing, which means that more and more everyday commodities will contain microprocessors in the future, the borderlines between “classic” electrical equipment (such as refrigerators) and electronic equipment will become blurred. One can already see today that more and more objects that used to be considered purely “electrical” are now equipped with computer chips, and thus have turned into “electronic” objects. Today, more than 98% of all programmable microprocessors are embedded in commodities that are usually not perceived as computers (e.g., household appliances and toys). Even more relevant from an environmental point of view, many commodities that until recently were considered “nonelectric” are now being equipped with microprocessors for extended functionality, or with radiofrequency identification (RFID) transponders for contactless identification

Both the old (device-like) and new (embedded) types of information and communication technologies (ICTs) are spreading out rapidly, leaping geopolitical borders and penetrating our everyday lives across traditional categories of basic commodities. Given these trends in ICT diffusion and application, it is likely that the dissipation of valuable and toxic materials due to the distribution and disposal of electronics will continue, unless effective countermeasures are taken.

The hope that the continued miniaturization of electronics, according to the so-called Moore’s Law and related technological trends, will solve the problem in the long run is neither supported by experience nor by the expectations explicitly stated by ICT manufacturers.

Experience shows that the miniaturization of devices is usually counteracted by the growing numbers of devices produced. For instance, the considerable reduction in the average physical mass of a mobile phone from over 350 g (1990) to about 80 g (2005), which corresponds to a reduction by a factor of 4.4, was accompanied by an increase in the number of subscribers, which in turn led to a rise of the total mass flow by a factor of 8. In every case of miniaturization in digital electronics thus far, the price per functional unit has fallen and triggered greater demand, which compensates–or even overcompensates–for the miniaturization effect in terms of mass flow. There is no evidence that this rebound effect of miniaturization will no longer apply if the visions called “pervasive computing,” “ubiquitous computing,” or “ambient intelligence” become real.

Quite the contrary, IBM expects that in the next 5–10 years, about 1 billion (109) people will be using more than a trillion (1012) networked objects across the world. This would mean that there would be an average of 1000 “smart objects” per person in the richer part of the world, each containing a processor and some communication module. If we assume that the average mass of an electronic component used to make an object “smart” is about 10 g and that such a component would be in service for about 1 year, the resulting per-capita flow of e-waste amounts to 10 kg/a. This value is on the same order of magnitude as today’s e-waste in industrialized countries.

We can conclude that implementing the “smart objects” vision would not render the mass flows of electronic waste negligible; however, it will certainly change the quality and manageability of these flows.

Taking other technological visions literally can even lead to dramatic results. One example is the vision of “e-grains”—very small processors that are envisioned to be used as “intelligent wall paint,” turning walls into large-scale displays and rooms into distributed computers. In a study for the Swiss Center for Technology Assessment, it was hypothetically assumed that this technology would be applied to give every inhabitant of Western Europe, North America, and Japan one “intelligent room.” Assuming further that nickel will still be used as a constituent of e-grains, it was estimated that more than 40% of the world’s annual nickel production (1.2 million tonnes in the year 2000) would be required to produce the wall paint.

Irrespective of the many details that may be debatable, the considerations set out above suggest that the life cycle of electronics has to be improved significantly if we are to avoid an accelerated loss of scarce raw materials and emission of toxics into the environment.

When e-waste is disposed of, recycled, or put into a landfill with domestic waste without any controls, there are predictable negative consequences for the environment and for human health.

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The pace of change in technology is unrelenting. Electric and electronic products are outdated in the blink of an eye, consigned to the rubbish tip of history, and too often to the rubbish tip of the world. Electrical and electronic waste is the fastest growing stream of global waste and will continue to be dumped in those developing countries least equipped to deal with it properly under the guise of increasing access to and use of computers by less developed world-Africa?.

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