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Waste Unplugged

     Waste Unplugged    

Life seems easier with electronic goods. But beneath the glitzy surface of benefits, looms a darker reality. As technology gets upgraded further, electronic goods get outdated faster, generating mounds of electronic waste or ‘e-waste’. It is the fastest growing waste stream and poses a huge health hazard. What is the problem with e-waste and where does it all go?

Electronic waste or e-waste means discarded electronic goods. They range from televisions, refrigerators, mobile phones, toys, personal stereos, to computers. E-waste contributes to less than one per cent of the total waste generated in India. But their volume is steadily rising by threefive per cent annually, which is almost three times faster than the growth of municipal waste stream.

E-waste contains over thousand chemicals, many of which are toxic and this can create serious environmental and health hazards. But, just how hazardous e-waste is, depends on the amount of toxic substances present in it. Among all e-waste, computer waste is the most toxic. (see box, below) But, toxicity is not the only problem.

Toxics in 500 million computers
  Plastics     2.8 billion kgs
  Lead     0.8 billion kgs
  Cadmium     1.36 million kgs
  Chromium     0.86 million kgs
  Mercury     286,670.3 kgs

    The culture of disposing    

E-waste is released at alarming rates compared to other goods because of the rapid evolution of technology. As a result, older products get outdated or ‘obsolete’. Also, there is a new trend of disposal. Earlier, a television or a stereo was bought, to last for a decade or so. Now, broken electronics are rarely taken to a repair shop, as replacement is easier and cheaper than repair. This culture has affected the making of electronic goods. For instance, a computer’s average lifespan has shrunk from 4-5 years to just two. Of the nearly 5 million PCs in India, 1.38 million are in the stage of getting outmoded. The result is that a vast amount of ewaste is generated. It gets costly to upgrade technology after a level.

     Asia as the dumpyard    

As most of the Asian countries are developing, they depend on developed countries like the US for technological support. This exposes countries like India to huge volumes of hazardous e-waste, dumped by industrialised nations. It is estimated that computer waste, exported to Asia comes to about 10.2 million units. This is equivalent to a tightly stacked pile of computer waste covering one acre square and 674 feet high! Imagine if we were to include other electronic goods like cellphones (see box) and TVs.

     Disposing e-waste    

Disposing and recycling e-waste is an uphill task because of the hazards involved. Environmentally safe technology is quite expensive. As most recyclers do not have the technology, e-waste is usually disposed in landfills, incinerators or recycled or reused. In landfills, chemicals from e-waste, gradually leach into the soil and often pollute groundwater. In incinerators, where e-waste is burnt, toxic gases like dioxins are released into the air.


Mobile mess

By end of this year, at least 500 million old mobile models in the US will be discarded, says a study by Inform. They also estimate that within three years, North Americans will discard about 130- million cellular phones per year. This figure adds up to approximately 65,000 tonnes of toxic trash.


This can cause diseases like silicosis, respiratory problems and sometimes even death, due to exposure to toxic metals like lead. To reduce the impact of e-waste, one can reuse. About three-five per cent of the discarded computers are re-used. But, with a short life-span, they will soon end up as waste. A recent solution has come from designers who plan to use environmentally safe raw material to make electronic goods. Hope it unplugs the bug...


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Waste Unplugged