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E-waste, a threat to sustainable development

E-waste, a threat to sustainable development

The development of technology has enabled us to reach whole new markets. It works to create a better and simpler life for humans all over the world, and it is often used in many humanitarian and aid projects. However, the technological development also brings a more concerning aspect to light. Where do all the electronic devices go when we no longer can use it or when new, more modern devices reach the market?

E-waste (Electronic waste) and the handling of it is a massive environmental issue that affects the entire world, as well as a massive health issue for those working with it in uncontrolled circumstances. These informal massive waste sites are often located in poor countries that either have few environmental laws, or that have environmental laws that are never really enforced. At the same time, the e-waste business is a profitable business for the people running it. With little or no rules, it is basically a lawless land.

Agbogbloshie: image above from Pureearth.org, image below from dailyguideafrica.com

E-waste can be highly toxic and contains substances and material such as heavy metals and organics which affects human health and ecosystems negatively when they are not handled in a correct way. For example, at informal waste sites, electronic devices are often burned which releases toxic into the air that affects both humans and nature. And it is not just the nature or people in the close surroundings of the waste sites that are in danger. For example, in Ghana where there are laws forbidding children under a certain age to work and where they do have environmental laws that could help prevent the toxic spread and encourage better management of e-waste, places such as Agbogbloshie has managed to become not just a very profitable business for the people running it, but also a village — families work and live on the waste site. Here, young children work to collect valuable metals to sell without anyone really noticing, and just across the street from the burning of plastic, metal and rubber one of the greatest and largest food markets in the area is held (although, there has been discussions about moving the market but it seems like that is more because of the fact that the area is seen as a slum area, and not because of the e-waste issue). Meaning, a lot more people are affected by the toxic pollution than just those living and working in the area. The toxic reaches the fruit, vegetables and the kettle that is walking around on the waste site — infecting more people than we can ever know.

The issue of E-waste mainly comes from Developed countries who consider the recycling of E-waste too expensive in their own countries, and that therefore willingly sends it to poor countries to handle, with very limited background check of how the E-waste will be managed. Low-income countries such as Bangladesh, India, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines are often the end destination for E-waste as the difference between for example USA and Bangladesh was more than 18 dollars per computer in 2015 according the article “E-waste: a challenge for sustainable development”. This action is banned by the Basel Convention and the European directive on Waste for Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), but companies still do it.

Used electronic devices are also often send to poor countries to be re-used as a second-hand article or declared as material aid (according to the article “Assessing the side effects of ICT development[…]”*), as they are said to function properly. Massive containers are sent, filled with computers, phones, speakers etc. to people and business that intend to sell it again, or to be used as material aid . However, as described in the documentary about Agbogbloshie, these containers often also contains broken devices or other devices that cannot be used and that are sent directly to the waste sites. Meaning, it is an easy and cheap way to get rid of the devices you no longer can sell on your market regardless if there it a demand in the country where you send it or not, and regardless if the devices are still functional or not.

As a result, the increased accessibility of electronic devices in developing countries that does not know how the devices should be recycled or handled after their life span becomes another reason for the issue. Phones are thrown directly in the bin, computers are smashed and burned in the garden of homes etc. As a phone has a relative short life-span compared to other ICT-devices, this is one of the most important devices to collect and keep from ill-managed waste handling. In many of the industrialised countries, such rules are implemented and followed. For example, many phone companies have “take-back programs” where you can return your old phone in exchange for a gift card, or a certain percentage in discount on a new purchase. This is a result of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which is an “environmental policy approach where the responsibility of the producer reaches to post-consumer stage of a product’s life span including its final disposal”. The take-back programs can be either mandatory via for example government programs where a set percentage of recycling of electronic devices are required, or voluntary programs. However, when there is no mandatory requirement — it has been proved that companies/producers often lack in this initiative (read more in the article “Assessing the side effects of ICT development[…]”[1]

Agbogbloshie is one among many

Agbogbloshie is therefore not even close to the only one of its kind. For eco-systems all over the world, and on health in poor countries, ICT has had a very negative effect as we seem to show little interest in taking responsibility for our consumption. We have not seen the consequences as a rapid change, but as a slow and increasing change. We are standing in front of a large and serious climate change, how we decide to carry on forward will decide whether or not we will reach the goals set for 2020. In 2015, E-waste stood for 8 % of the total volume of current municipal waste (MSW). In 2005, global e-waste was around 9,5 million tons according to the article “E- waste: A challenge for sustainable development” and by 2018 it is assumed to have reached almost 50 million tons and have an annual growth rate of 4-5% according to this Forbes article. We don’t know all the numbers of the illegal business of e-waste, but even without adding it — we have a scary high number.

Green computing, better international mandatory requirements for e-waste and recycling is a must. Companies and governments in the West need to take a greater responsibility and EPR should be implemented and controlled in a greater extend. Clear and transparent documentation and reports should be required and random controls of documentation and waste-management should be performed in order to create a more manageable situation. Better education on how to use, and recycle electronic devices in developing countries should also be implemented. We need to start taking real responsibility for our consumption and the consequences of it.

For further reading

  • [1] Assessing the side effects of ICT development: E-waste production and management, A case study about cell phone and end-of-life in Manado Indonesia” by Meity Panambunan-Ferse, Andreas Breiter (2013)
  • E-waste: A challange for sustainable development” by Md. Sahadat Hossain, Sulala M.Z.F. Al- Hamadani, Md. Toufiqur Rahman (2015


  1. Emanuel Foukou

    Wow, this is a great, and another example of a dark side of ICT. Some years ago, I guess before China had increased their presence in Africa, I was often asked to bring old phones and computers to friends and family when I traveled, as they claimed they could use old equipment that I no longer used. Today it happens that you see broken phones and computers along the road, some of them are eve thrown on fires. It is good that you are highlighting this issue as it got some major effects on the environment. I will ask one of my friends who might know what is being done with old computers and phones in Congo, but I am pretty sure they are thrown away in the same way as banana peels.

  2. Malin Pettersson

    Thank you for your comment!
    I agree, this is a big issue and something we really should be aware of. I think that the lack of knowledge contributes to how e-waste is managed today and, as you mention, thrown out like banana peels.

    If you do get any specific answers from your friend, please let me know – it would be interesting to hear.

  3. Anna Meusburger

    Malin, this is a great article and it is so relevant. While we are all so excited about the positive developments ICTs can bring to development, we hardly spend enough time discussing this one pressing issues.

    “Green computing, better international mandatory requirements for e-waste and recycling is a must.” I could not agree more about this statement. I would have been interested in also reading what governments actually do in this direction. I know, that the European Union has several legislations, (the WEEE directive) addressing electronic waste issues. I think it does mention the impact of e-waste in developing countries. Is it tackling it sufficiently and are there any (very necessary) legal consequences and sanctions? I doubt it.

    1. Malin Pettersson

      Thank you for your comment!
      Yes, development of technology is a great thing but we need to be aware of and address the consequences as well. I think that a big part of the issue is that the existing legislation and directives aren’t followed up on enough, and that there isn’t enough general knowledge.

      In a lot of different situations, companies use developing countries for ”the dirty work” because it is cheaper and might not have the same type of legislation or control. So in my opinion it is also an ethical issue.

  4. Emanuel Bissila Foukou

    Hi Malin,

    I will let you know when I hear from my friend. Are you on Twitter? Thanks for an excellent presentation yesterday, keep up the good work 🙂

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