I was recently cleaning my house when I came across three old mobile phones: a feature phone, a BlackBerry, and an iPhone. I found myself wondering, “Why did I keep these?” Immediately, I thought, “the pictures,” but then quickly remembered that nowadays when everything can be saved to the cloud, that justification makes no sense. When I finished organizing, I found that I had left the three phones on my desk, as if they were patiently waiting for me to do something with them. It quickly dawned on me that I actually did not know what to do with them… not from a sentimental perspective, but rather from a lack of knowledge of how to securely dispose of technology. Shouldn’t many of the pieces and parts be reusable to build new devices or maintain old ones? Is there an equivalent to an electronics recycling bin?
A quick Google search confirmed I wasn’t the first to ask this question. I learned that the worst thing you can with an old mobile phone is to throw it out because if it ends up in a landfill, it can leak chemicals that could potentially pollute water sources nearby or damage soil health. This fact completely distracted me from my original question and led me down a rabbit hole of the potential environmental harms caused by technology waste.
Electronic waste found in Agbogbloshie, Ghana.
Between mobile phones, computers, laptops, televisions, and smart home devices there must be billions of electronic devices in use, let alone billions that are replaced annually around the world. Do most people know how to dispose of them? I couldn’t find a direct answer, but I’ve shared some of the facts I learned below:
The Global Impact of Technology Waste
- In 2018, there were 50 million tons of electronic waste globally and only 20 percent of it was disposed of appropriately. The rest ended up in landfills.
- There is a Global E-Waste Monitor, published annually by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in partnership with the Sustainable Cycles Programme.
- Toxic chemicals that are released by electronic waste include, but are not limited to, mercury, brominated flame-retardants, and chlorofluorocarbons. Many are carcinogenic.
Agbogbloshie E-Waste Dump
- Agbogbloshie, an urban neighborhood in Accra, Ghana, has one of the largest electronic waste landfills. It processes electronic waste from Western Europe and the United States. A report from 2018 found that, as a result, Agbogbloshie contains some of the most hazardous chemicals in the world.
- More than 10,000 people work in the landfill and many suffer from health problems including respiratory illness and skin ailments.
- Agbogbloshie is also home to a large food market in Accra. As a result, the toxins are also entering the local food chain, exposing more residents to hazardous materials.
Consequences of E-Waste in Asia
- In East and Southeast Asia, processing electronic waste is a lucrative business in the informal and formal economy. Yet, the insecure disposal of electronic waste has also had hazardous consequences. In 2018, the Dangkor landfill outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia experienced a huge fire, releasing chemical toxins from the electronics into the air.
- The challenge is more complex in other Asian countries.
E-Waste’s Economic Potential
- There is immense economic potential in electronic waste if it is processed correctly. For instance, many have precious metals (gold, silver, palladium, platinum) that can be resold in the market.
- The ITU encourages countries to adopt electronic waste policies. To date, 78 counties have adopted such policies.
Graphic from Global E-Waste Monitor report in 2017.
How is This Relevant to the Digital Development Community?
Although these facts only begin to scratch the surface of the challenges electronic waste poses to the world, this conversation is something we in the digital development community should be monitoring. As a community, we’ve increasingly begun to grapple with the challenges posed by digital harms, like mis/disinformation, in an effort to mitigate them given the immense potential equitable and inclusive access to digital tools and services can offer populations. Similarly, we must consider other types of harms created by digital adoption, such as the severe environmental consequences of electronic waste.