E-waste: Impacts, challenges and the role of civil society
By Katherine Walraven
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA, 28 February 2007
That information and communication technologies (ICTs) have a valuable role to play in building a more fair, just, and sustainable world is well established. The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is a firm believer in the power of these tools to transform lives and communities. And yet, while the benefits of expanding access to ICTs are many, there are negative impacts as well. Foremost among these are the environmental consequences of ICTs, such as the problems associated with a growing volume of e-waste.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that as many as 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated worldwide each year. Increasing at a rate of 3 to 5 percent per year (faster than any other category of waste), the global volume of e-waste produced annually is soon expected to double. Rapid technological change, product obsolescence, and sinking prices combine to increase the speed at which consumers replace old technology. Meanwhile, more and more people become first-time consumers of electronics every day – especially in developing countries and countries with economies in transition.
Product life cycle
Not only does increased consumption of products such as computers, cell phones and telephones generate substantial e-waste, but it also places a heavy burden on natural resources due to the quantities of water and energy used for producing these devices, not to mention the energy consumed during their use. In fact, a study by Eric Williams of the United Nations University reveals that the production of a single desktop computer and standard monitor consumes the same amount of fossil fuels and water as that of a medium-sized car.
The volume of e-waste being generated grossly outweighs the existing capacity to manage it in an environmentally sustainable way. Ironically, although the majority of e-waste is generated in the industrialized countries, much is transferred to developing countries, where environmental regulations and treatment capacity are significantly weaker. In the absence of adequate infrastructure, e-waste is commonly burnt in open air, dropped into bodies of water, and dumped in land fills, releasing toxic substances which contribute to air, water, and soil pollution and accompanying health problems.
Health is further undermined through widespread informal recycling. In order to recover the valuable components of e-waste, people will sort through piles of e-waste with their bare hands and smash computer monitors, coming into direct contact with various hazardous substances.
The Basel Convention was implemented in 1992 to manage problems associated with hazardous waste. It aims to minimise the generation and international transfer of hazardous wastes, including many forms of e-waste. Unfortunately its success in stemming the production and trade of e-waste has been limited. The text is often subject to flexible interpretation and governments face challenges in controlling the movement of hazardous forms of e-waste. Also, an amendment to the Convention banning all transfers of hazardous wastes from developed to developing countries has been stalled since its introduction in 1995 due to an insufficient number of signatories. In the meantime, as the overall volume of e-waste grows, so too does the volume crossing borders.
Linking ICTs to environmental sustainability
E-waste is at the very crux of the relationship between ICTs and environmental sustainability, and will be a key focus of APC’s endorsement of the Information Technology for Environmental Sustainability (ITES) initiative. This new venture, set to be rolled out in 2007, seeks to bridge the gap between environmental sustainability and information society. “While dealing with hazardous hardware is an obvious environmental challenge, ICT and the internet hold great potential for environmental improvement,” says Pavel Antonov, the environmental journalist behind the ITES initiative.
“IT communities worldwide can influence decisions and effectively protect their environments,” says the Budapest-based project coordinator, thereby hoping to combine traditional and online environmental activism and campaigning to tackle e-waste in particular.
The importance of raising awareness through campaigns and lobbying cannot underlined enough. Consumers’ knowledge of e-waste can influence what they purchase, how they dispose of old technology, and whether they put pressure on their governments to take the issue more seriously.
Ultimately, re-use, refurbishment, and recycling are only stopgap measures that do not address the rising volume of e-waste. It is thus critical to lobby nationally and internationally to push for cleaner, greener ICT technology. The European Union’s new RoHS Directive, which bans new electrical and electronic equipment containing more than established levels of certain hazardous substances from the market, seeks to address the problem of e-waste at its source.
Nonprofits as green trailblazers
Alan Finlay, coordinator of an e-waste collection project out of Johannesburg, argues that organizations like APC, which champion the use of ICTs, have a responsibility to ensure that the promotion of technology does not compromise environmental and human health. Towards this end, e-waste should be a central organisational concern and major campaign issue, whenever possible.
Finlay runs the Gauteng Green e-Waste Channel, a pilot e-waste collection initiative in South Africa. He also authored APC’s November 2005 issue paper, which employed a case study of South Africa to highlight the e-waste challenges facing developing countries in general.
Most developing countries are only just beginning to develop basic waste management systems, and do not have the infrastructure nor the resources to effectively manage e-waste. Moreover, in light of pressing developmental challenges such as poverty alleviation and human health, e-waste is simply not seen as a priority. This underlies the lack of both e-waste legislation and recycling in developing countries.
While the challenges to sustainable management of e-waste are formidable, civil society can, and indeed must, support the responsible management of existing e-waste and the eventual phasing out of toxins in technology. Provisions can for instance be incorporated into project proposals, contracts, and budgets, thereby institutionalising solutions while also potentially heightening both donors’ and beneficiaries’ awareness of e-waste. ICT tools, of course, will be indispensable to these efforts.
The author is currently working with APC as an intern.
Photo: Society Promoting Environmental Conservation – no photographer noted