Urgent action is needed to stop the planet’s ever-expanding pile of toxic electronic waste, says an international expert.
Professor Ming Wong, director of the Croucher Institute for Environmental Sciences, at the Hong Kong Baptist University, made the call today in a key note speech to theCleanUp 2013 conference in Melbourne.
“I would call it a global time bomb,” says Wong, referring to the growing pile of waste produced by old mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices.
Wong says as much as 50 million tonnes of hazardous e-waste is being produced a year and only a small fraction of this is safely disposed.
“[It] is the world’s fastest growing waste stream, rising by 3 to 5 per cent every year, due to the decreased lifespan of the average computer from six years to two,” says Wong.
“In countries such as Australia the disposal of e-waste in landfills generates a potent leachate, which has high concentrations of flame retardant chemicals and heavy metals. These can migrate through soils and groundwater and eventually reach people.”
Wong says developed countries often send e-waste to developing countries in Asia and Africa for recycling, taking advantage of these countries’ lower cost of labour and lower environmental regulation.
But, he says, in these countries e-waste is processed to remove precious materials such as gold, silver and platinum, under “extremely primitive conditions”, leading to extensive pollution of air, water, food and people.
“The toxic chemicals generated through open burning of e-waste include PCDD, PBDEs, PAHs, PCBs and heavy metals,” says Wong. “[These] have given rise to serious environmental contamination.”
“Some of these toxic chemicals are known to build up in fish especially, which may then be traded locally and around the world.”
Wong says that science has now clearly demonstrated the risk of these toxic chemicals being passed on to the next generation, while babies are still in the womb, or in their mother’s milk.
“At the same time these e-waste contaminated sites are extremely hard to clean up due to the complex chemical mixtures they contain,” he says.
“It is clear there is an urgent need to manage e-waste more efficiently in all countries and through better international collaboration … China is looking at this issue very seriously.”
Wong says producers need to design products so they can be dismantled into parts that can be reused, preserving valuable resources and reducing e-waste.
And governments need to plug “loopholes” to stop the export of e-waste to less affluent countries. “Countries should take responsibility for their own e-waste,” says Wong.
Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith from Australia’s National Toxics Network supports the call for countries to take responsibility for their own e-waste, and for electronics manufacturers to take more responsibility for their products “cradle to grave”.
But she says the bigger issue is consumerism.
“We can’t keep using electronics at the rate we have been. It’s not sustainable,” says Lloyd-Smith.
She says there are moves under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) to get companies to make computers last longer as well as to design them so they can be recycled sustainably.
Meanwhile, both Lloyd-Smith and Wong say consumers wanting to select a ‘green’ computer or mobile phone might have a tough job ahead of them.
Although, says Lloyd-Smith, some non-governmental organisation do provide information on the steps taken by different electronics manufacturers towards helping to solve the e-waste problem.
Read article at the ABC