A WEEE Problem that Is Getting Bigger

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on October 28 2020


I was pleased to receive a message on my (second-hand) smart phone inviting me to bring my e-waste to the local post office. I had up to October 10 to do this and just about met the deadline.  This seemed to be a very welcome initiative by the CEA (Central Environmental Authority). Mahinda Amaraweera, Minister for the Environment, said the programme was organised with the objective of minimising the harm caused to human beings, animals, and the environment by improper e-waste disposal. He said that all government agencies are bound by international development agreements to implement the UN SDGs (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals).

The acronym WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. WEEE contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame-retardants and polyvinyl chloride. These substances cause cancer, respiratory and reproductive problems. Even a low level of exposure of children and pregnant women can cause serious neurological damage. Phthalates causes sterility; chlorinated dioxins cause Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Unregulated WEEE activities do not only harm those working directly with the materials but also contaminate agricultural lands and livestock and enter the food chain.

E-waste represents 2% of America’s garbage in landfills, but it equals 70% of overall toxic waste. The US generates 3.4 million tons of WEEE a year only 11% of which is recycled. Only 15% of Indian WEEE is recycled, while the remaining was mixed with normal waste.

The communications revolution combined with rampant consumerism has created vast amounts of cyber-clutter, as people feel compelled constantly to upgrade their phones and computers. I have never been an early adopter. I have never been a great fan of phones of any kind and I have only recently been forced to use a smart phone. In those dark days when I had to work for a living, The Management was always trying to force gadgets on us; there were little hand-held computers called Organisers which one had to go on courses to learn how to operate. I never used mine at all and was chastised for creating this redundant e-waste. I found it much easier to jot things down in my diary – and I don’t mean Filofax. I tread lightly on the earth. I had an amplifier that served me well for over 30 years and speakers that lasted 20 years.

Even a Luddite like myself manages to accumulate a lot of redundant electronic rubbish. Some of it is a result of well-meant but misplaced charity, or recycling by friends and family. Some of it is stuff like my trusty old amplifier which reaches the end of its natural life and crawls away to die. It is difficult know what to do with this redundant equipment.

Electronic waste is sometimes recycled in a bad way, finding its way into counterfeit parts. A 2011 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee said that the US military supply chain might contain over one million counterfeit parts, including crucial avionics components. Counterfeit Chinese parts have been detected in the instrumentation of C-130J Hercules transport aircraft. Failure of these components would leave pilots with blank instrument panels in mid-flight. Production of these counterfeit parts often begins as electronic waste, shipped from the US to Hong Kong.

The only answer seems to be to send e-waste to another country and cause a problem elsewhere. In direct violation of federal law, Colorado-based firm Executive Recycling falsely claimed they would process waste in the US. Instead, they exported it. The fine was US$4.5 million and the court sentenced CEO, Brandon Richter, to two and a half years in prison.

The EU exported 220,000 tons of WEEE to West Africa in 2009. Some products sent as charitable donations, ostensibly for reuse, are unusable. In Ghana 30% of WEEE imports are unusable. Pakistan receives thousands of tons of WEEE every year from developed countries.

Creative capitalists have developed markets in WEEE. There are companies that extract gold, silver, palladium and base metals such as copper and nickel from circuit boards. Their worth can reach more than $15 per pound. The microprocessors inside circuit boards can sell for more than $30 per pound. EWEEE could prove a valuable source of metals in developing countries if the dangerous work processes were to be regulated. All over the world, local communities are taking positive steps to encourage recycling. New York state residents produce more than 300 million pounds of electronic waste each year. New laws make manufacturers responsible for the recycling of their own products and bans disposals of consumer electronics in landfills. A study from the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) shows that retailers are lagging behind consumers in social responsibility.

How did the recent Sri Lankan initiative work out? I sent my e-waste to the post office and wondered what would happen to it. Would it be dumped in a land-fill? What happened to it was that it boomeranged back to me (as do some of the letters I deposit at the post office). They only seemed to be interested in phones and computers that they could find an immediate use for thmselves.

I have looked at a number of academic studies on the subject and am filled with despair. No-one seems to have a solution and the problem just keeps growing. One study of the Sri Lankan situation says: “Currently all the E-waste collected within the country is being exported because of the unavailability of a recycling facility for electronic waste. Hence it is an urgent requirement to establish an environmentally sound E-waste recycling facility to cater E-waste generated within the country.” That does not get us very far.

It would be interesting if Minister Mahinda Amaraweera could clarify what criteria were given for deciding which items of e-waste would be accepted at post offices. The only guidance I could find was a statement that only domestic e-waste and not industrial-grade machinery would be accepted. I certainly have never had any industrial-grade machinery. What are we to do with the items that we are still stuck with? It would also be interesting to learn what was done with the items that were accepted at post offices.