Take responsibility for electronic-waste disposal

Take responsibility for electronic-waste disposal. Nature, August 2016.

International cooperation is needed to stop developed nations simply offloading defunct electronics on developing countries, argue Zhaohua Wang, Bin Zhang and Dabo Guan.

The world is producing ever more electrical and electronic waste. The quantity of dumped computers, telephones, televisions and appliances doubled between 2009 and 2014, to 42 million tonnes per year globally.

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Jie Zhao/Corbis/Getty. An electronic-waste recycling factory in Hubei, China.

Developed countries, especially in North America and Europe, produce the most e-waste (see ‘Unfair flow’). The United States generates the largest amount, and China the second most.

Much of this waste ends up in the developing world, where regulation is lax. China processed about 70% of the world’s e-waste in 2012; the rest goes to India and other countries in eastern Asia and Africa, including Nigeria. Non-toxic components — such as iron, steel, copper and gold — are valuable, so are more frequently recycled than toxic ones. Disposal plants release toxic materials, volatile organic chemicals and heavy metals, which can harm the environment and human health.

Lead levels sampled in the blood of children in the e-waste-processing town of Guiyu, China, were on average three times the safe limit recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention6. In California, peregrine falcons have been threatened — polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which are widely used as flame-retardants in electronics, have been discovered in their eggs.

A global approach to managing the volume and flow of e-waste is urgently needed. This requires: an international protocol on e-waste; funding for technology transfer; firmer national legislation on imports and exports; and greater awareness of the problem among consumers. Researchers and regulators should build a global e-waste flow system that covers the whole life cycle of electrical goods, including production, usage, disposal, recovery and remanufacturing.

Beyond better recycling, the ultimate aim should be a circular economy of cleaner production and less wasteful consumption, including the embrace of a sharing economy and cloud-based technologies with smaller material footprints. As the world’s largest producer of electronic goods and recipient of the most e-waste, China should take the lead.

 

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