E-Waste: The dark horse of environmental issues

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Electronic Waste, or 'E-Waste', has become the fastest growing waste stream in the industrialised world. E-waste is the term used to describe end of life electronic equipment such as mobile phones, computers, printers, televisions, toys, washing machines and other electronic household appliances. 

Most of these electronics will end up discarded within 3 years due to new technology and planned obsolescence. The average lifespan of a computer has significantly shortened from six years to two, and the average life cycle of today's mobile phones is just 9-18 months. Hence, as much as 50 million tons of e-waste is being produced annually, most of it from first-world countries whose strict recycling laws make it expensive and laborious to safely dispose.

As a result much of it is exported to third-world countries, such as China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Philippines and Africa, who do not have strict regulations. This exportation is illegal under the Basel Convention which states that ‘hazardous waste must be disposed of in the country of origin’. 

What it does to the environment: 

Chemicals in e-waste can include mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, nickel and chromium. These compounds can be very persistent in the environment and are taken up by plants through soil and humans through their food, water, air, dust, skin contact and ingestion.

What it can do to people:

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), small concentrations of lead, mercury and cadmium have the potential to cause neurological damage, cancer, disease of the lungs kidneys, thyroid and liver, and can cause behaviour and learning difficulties in children.

What can be done: 

Governments around the world need to stop exporting their e-waste to these third world countries, and instead look to improving their own waste methods. Governments should feel responsible for managing their own e-waste recycling schemes, making it cheaper and more sustainable for businesses to explore this avenue, rather than simply offloading the duty to countries that need money. 

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