Electronics have been integrated into nearly every aspect of the the modern world, and the lives of many have been made simpler by its presence. But this technology, which has cemented its role in our society and in the minds of those that are imagining the future, comes at a cost. Its temporary nature and toxic components have created a troubling economy of electronic waste.
The term e-waste refers to end-of-life, or end-of-use, electronic appliances that have been discarded by the original owners. E-waste has been organized into three categories: Large Household Appliances, including washing machines and refrigerators; IT and Telecom, like PC components and laptops; and Consumer Equipment, such as mobile phones and and televisions.
Most e-waste is made of similar materials, which can be broken down into the following percentages: iron and steel constituting 50%, plastics at 21%, and non-ferrous metal at 13% with various other materials filling out the rest. The presence of lead, mercury, arsenic, and other toxic substances, in high quantities, are what defines e-waste as hazardous.
An estimated 50 million tons of e-waste is produced annually, India produces 1.7 million tons, and over 50,000 tons are illegally exported to India. The inherent value of the components and precious metals in many electronic appliances has created an unofficial industry in developing nations. The work force contains adults and children, who disassemble e-waste by hand, coming into direct contact with toxic materials. This is a case in which the process of upcycling is causing direct harm to individuals.
In 2012 e-waste management and handling rules came into effect in India, but studies by a eco-watchdog group have repeatedly found that many companies are not complying. Below is a table outlining the many health concerns associated with improper handling of e-waste.
India is in dire need of policy and recycling infrastructure reform, but how can you help? By increasing your awareness of harmful products, investing in long lasting electronics, protecting the products that you use, recycling with ethical recyclers, and donating instead of throwing away you can make a difference.
You can learn more about the e-waste epidemic, and how you can help, through the companies linked below.
AllGreen. A website that helps you find local e-waste drop off locations.
EPA E-Waste Page. The EPA's international education and cooperation page on e-waste.
Toxics Link. A Delhi based environmental justice project fighting for freedom from toxic waste.
BAN. A global e-waste awareness project, fighting for total transparency.
SVTC. A non-profit focusing on environmental justice in the face of the rapidly growing high-tech industry.