What happens when high-income countries do not follow electronic waste disposal rules? Shiploads of electronic devices discarded by these countries land in middle- and low-income countries, overwhelming their landfill sites. So what's the problem?
A number of impoverished city dwellers work or live near the e-waste dumpsites. As e-waste dumps increase across the world, so do the number of people employed in this sector. Over 18 million children may be at risk from exposure to toxic e-waste because of their work in these sites, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report said.
The report published on 15 June, 2021 titled 'Children and Digital Dumpsites' says that children and pregnant women working in or living around the informal e-waste recycling industry are the most at risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals.
Of the 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste produced in 2019, only 17.4% reached formal waste management systems. The remainder becomes part of an informal waste recycling system.
Informal processing of e-waste happens through open burning and heating the devices. Another method is acid leaching. Mobile phones, computers, washing machines, TV sets and other small and big appliances contain valuable resources like gold, silver, platinum, cobalt, copper, aluminium, iron and more. With acid leaching, children (and pregnant women) use nitric acid or mercury to extract these precious metals. This exposes them to hazardous metals like mercury, lead and cadmium.
Open burning of waste releases toxicants into the air; leaching them releases them into water and soil. Exposure of these toxins in children is linked to asthma, impaired neurodevelopment, cardiovascular and thyroid functions, and an increased risk of cancer.
Informal e-waste landfills are found in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Philippines, Viet Nam and many other low-income countries. In India, informal recycling is a major contributor to air pollution. Some e-waste chemicals remain in soil and get ingested by animals. Over time they bioaccumulate in livestock and enter dairy products, eventually to be ingested by humans. From soil, they enter crops, plants and reach humans.
India is a major importer and producer of e-waste. Of the total amount of e-waste produced in India, around 95% is recycled in the informal sector. New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai are our major e-waste recycling hot spots. Soil samples taken from 28 sites across these cities showed contamination by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are man-made chemicals used in paints, plastic, dyes. Once released in the environment, they do not easily break down. They cycle between air, water, soil and travel long distances from their source of contamination. PCBs cause cancer, damage the immune and reproductive systems and cause multiple other problems in humans and animals.
In Bengaluru, an informal recycling site behind a slum and a licensed recycling facility were both analysed for trace elements contamination. Trace elements - cobalt, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, zinc etc. - are required in minimum amounts to maintain health. But if ingested in more than required amounts, they lead to toxicity. The analysis titled 'Contamination by Trace Elements at E-Waste Recycling Sites in Bangalore India' revealed higher concentration of elements in the slum area than in the licensed facility.
An assessment of an informal e-waste recycling area in Delhi showed high concentration of heavy metals - arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead etc. - in soil and groundwater. The heavy metal levels in groundwater were more than the permissible limit of Indian Standards as well as the maximum allowable limit of WHO, said the report titled 'Informal e-waste recycling: Environmental risk assessment of heavy metal contamination in Mandoli industrial area, Delhi, India.'
India generated 3230 kilotons of e-waste in 2019, more than Australia (554), Brazil (2143) and Canada (757). That is equal to the weight of 320 Eiffel Towers.
It is estimated that the world will generate 74.7 million tonnes of e-waste by 2030, adding 45 million more people to the already huge number of 65 million.
If policies that ensure responsible disposal and recycling of electronic waste are not imposed, and exposure to children and women goes unchecked, it will lead to a vicious cycle of potentially lifelong, reproductive and developmental health impacts.