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All about: Electronics

  • Story Highlights
  • Up to 5 percent (50 million tons) of waste globally is e-waste, Greenpeace says
  • E-waste is growing rapidly in the developing world
  • Exporting e-waste to developing world is growing issue, U.S. says
  • Hi-tech industry beginning to consider eco-friendly products
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By Rachel Oliver
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(CNN) -- The problem with technology is by its nature it has to be new, or at least appear so. As a result, our televisions, mobile phones and computers seem ever too frequently out of date.

So we end up replacing them, and the old machines get chucked away. The stuff that gets chucked away is known as e-waste, and it is the fastest growing source of municipal waste on Earth.

At the moment e-waste only represents 5 percent of the world's municipal waste stream --- that represents up to 50 million tons of electronic waste a year, according to Greenpeace -- but that number is going to get much bigger. In Europe, e-waste levels are growing at a rate of 3 percent-5 percent a year.

In the developing world, e-waste levels are expected to triple in the next five years as consumers there step on the consumerist bandwagon and spend their newly earned money on electronic gadgets. (By 2010, Greenpeace says there will be 178 million new computer users in China and 80 million new users in India alone.)

To compound this problem, the average amount of time people are hanging on to their gadgets is in freefall. The average lifespan of computers back in 1997 was six years; in 2005 it was only two years, Greenpeace says. And it's not just PCs that have turned into veritable throwaway items.

A recent article by the UK's Observer newspaper found that in that country the average lifespan of a mobile phone now is just 18 months, and it calculated that Britons are dumping their phones in favor of new models at a rate of 1,700 every hour.

(The reason for discarding electronics often has nothing to do with flaws in the hardware itself, but more to do with the software that is running the machines. Microsoft's Vista operating system has been blamed for rendering millions of computers obsolete, for example, by the fact that the machines can't run on the new system. According to Mother Jones, as much as 95 percent of all household PCs in the UK and one-third of all laptops will need to be replaced should their users install Vista.)

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Landfills are a natural destination for these discarded goods. Electronic items sitting in landfills are bad news for the environment generally, one of the more potent risks of leaving them there being they leak and infect groundwater supplies.

Around 40 percent of the heavy metals (such as lead, mercury and cadmium) found in landfills come from electronic waste, according to the Computer Take Back Campaign. Only a small amount of leakage can be hazardous, it argues, pointing out that "just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate 20 acres of a lake, making the fish unfit to eat".

Sending electronics to landfills are being strongly discouraged for good reason. And while consumers may have dutifully taken their machines to recyclers, in many countries in the developed world, "recycling" actually means "exporting." Up to 80 percent of the electronics collected for recycling in the U.S., for example is sent overseas, reports AP.

The eventual destination is Asia. Around 80 percent of global e-waste ends up there, according to the Basel Action Network (BAN). And as much as 90 percent of that ends up in China, illegally (the rest goes to India and Africa), and predominantly in the Pearl River Delta region in the south of the country.

The reason: It saves money. For companies in the developed world, "it's as much as 10 times cheaper" to export the waste to places such as India than it is to deal with it at home, reports AP, quoting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) figures.

Dangerous e-waste exports

The town of Guiyu in China's Guangdong province is, thanks to the media attention it has received over the past few years, probably the best well-known e-waste dumping ground on Earth. It has also come to epitomize the problems associated with this practice.

Guiyu literally now relies on e-waste for its income: 80 percent of its 132,000 inhabitants work in the e-waste recovery industry, according to the China Economic Review. But it's not exactly a great arrangement. People use their hands to disassemble the machines; they extract the materials they need using health-harming methods such as open burning, which emit a variety of toxins into the air; they throw the stuff they can't sell into the river.

Their naked exposure to toxic chemicals has resulted in the fact that around 80 percent of all children in the village now have lead poisoning, and that the level of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants are 16,000 times higher in Guiyu than they should be, according to Green Left Weekly. (While the affect of PBDEs have not been tested on humans, PBDEs have been found to "impair attention, learning, memory, and behavior in laboratory animals at surprisingly low levels", according to the Washington-based Environmental Working Group)

There are international laws that forbid the export of hazardous waste, including e-waste, notably The Basel Convention, which has been in force since 1992. China is a signatory to the Convention. It has also ratified it. (The only notable country that hasn't ratified it is the United States)

There are also specific laws in the European Union which prohibit exporting e-waste to developing nations. But the developed world still manages to ship its e-waste to the developing world using labels of charitable donations and reuse programs.

India, which bans the importation of e-waste, is the latest emerging market to enter the e-waste trade. In six months alone, this year 600 tons of e-waste entered the country, reports -- "under the guise of charitable or re-usable materials, all duty free."

Aside environmental and health risks, there are other arguments for fixing the e-waste trade. Electronics are full of precious metals like gold, palladium and silver, and the act of trashing them is putting a strain on supplies. And that has a notable knock-on effect: prices for them are going up.

According to the UN StEP program, which aims to standardize the recycling of e-waste globally, the price of Indium (used in more than one billion products annually, like flat-screen monitors and mobile phones) has "increased six-fold" in the last 5 years; the cost of Bismuth (used in hard disk drives) has doubled since 2005; and the price of Ruthenium (used in hard disk drives) has gone up "by a factor of seven" in less than two years.

Improving efficiency

Electronics are incredibly resource-inefficient. According to a United Nations university study, an average 24-kilograms (53-pound) desktop computer and monitor takes 10 times its own weight in fossil fuels to make, StEP says. (As a point of comparison, a car only requires one to two times its weight in fossil fuels to build). It also requires 1,500 kg (3,330 pounds) of water and 22 kg (50 pounds) of chemicals. One mobile phone meanwhile, according to the Observer, requires 2 kilograms' worth of materials such as nickel, plastics, lead, lithium, tin and mercury.

These price hikes, however, should not intimidate the electronics industry too much. The trade in information and communications technologies (ICT) yields not billions but trillions of dollars every year. In 2004 alone, quoting OECD figures, StEP says the global ICT trade made a cool $1.9 trillion, representing 7.7 percent of gross world product and 4 percent of U.S. GDP.

While the electronics industry may be able to pay higher prices, it is debatable whether the consumer will do so. Other options are workable domestic recycling programs or using less harmful materials to manufacture electronics.

Technology companies such as Sony and Dell have traditionally come under fire from environmentalists arguing that they would not implement recycling programs for their own products in the U.S. (which doesn't oblige them to) while doing so in the EU (which does). That should change with Sony's recent decision to open recycling centers across the U.S., where it will even accept competitors' products for a fee.

The other option is to make electronics more eco-friendly. A U.S. study conducted by the Green Electronics Council (GEC) has recently argued that the act of consumers switching to "green computers" actually did have a significant impact on the environment, reports CSRWire.

The study looked at the impact of an industry standard known as the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which ranks IT products based on, among other things, their level of environmentally contentious materials such as mercury, lead, PVC and cadmium. During a six-month period last year, around 36.5 million EPEAT-registered desktops laptops and monitors, worldwide were sold by 21 manufacturers, representing 575 different product types.

The impact of those sales, according to GEC, was good news for the environment because it saved:

  • 13.7 billion kWh of electricity, enough to power 1.2 million U.S. homes for 1 year;
  • 24.4 million metric tons of materials;
  • 1.07 million tons of global warming gases, the equivalent of removing 852,000 cars from the road for 1 year;
  • 118,000 metric tons of water pollution;
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  • 1,070 metric tons of toxic material usage;
  • 41,100 metric tons of hazardous waste.
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    (Sources: Greenpeace; Observer; Mother Jones; Computer Take Back Campaign; AP; Basel Action Network; China Economic Review; Green Left Weekly; Environmental Working Group; Treehugger; StEP; ZDNet; CSRWire; Green Electronics Council)

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