E-waste includes broken, obsolete or simply old electronic or electrical equipment such as computers, mobile phones, televisions and refrigerators.
This poses threats to people if they handle or recycle such waste without taking adequate safety measures.
Even if e-waste is burnt or buried, the toxins can leach from incinerator ash or landfill sites.
As production and consumption of electronic and electrical equipment grows worldwide, so does the challenge of dealing with the waste.
The fact that many manufacturers design their products to become quickly defunct so consumers must buy more (known as ‘planned obsolescence’) adds to the problem.
The move towards digital television in many countries also means that millions of analogue television sets – each containing toxic lead – will need to be disposed off.
In 2010, the United Nations Environment Programme released a report [pdf] that predicted a 500 percent increase in e-waste by 2020.
According to UNEP, China will produce about 2.3 million tonnes of e-waste in 2010, second only to the United States with about 3 million tonnes.
Even in industrialized countries with strict regulations, the disposal of e-waste is still an occupational health risk.
But in poorer nations, that lack adequate waste management and recycling facilities, the risk is significantly greater.
In China, India and many African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria, poor people including children find work scavenging the dumps to recover valuable metals and reusable electronic equipment.
UNEP’s 2010 report predicted that by 2020, waste from old computers could increase by 200 to 400 percent in China and South Africa and by 500 percent in India.
It said that, in China, waste from discarded mobile phones would be seven times greater in 2020 than in 2007 and, in India, 18 times greater.
This problem is compounded by the fact that e-waste from industrialized countries often ends up in poorer ones, even if they have rules banning such imports.
Many of the components in electronic waste can be recycled but the amount of e-waste is now far greater than the capacity of recycling centres.
In addition, there is low consumer awareness of the need to recycle electronic and electrical products, so many end up in conventional waste and are buried or burnt.
When e-waste is recycled in developing countries workers, including young children, rarely take adequate safety precautions yet are exposed to hazardous chemicals.
Increasingly, countries are regulating e-waste with the aim of increasingly recycling and minimizing threats to health and the environment.
The European waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) directive, for instance, forces mobile phone producers to buy-back old handsets to re-use or recycle their components.
Similar schemes now operate in other countries including Mexico and Brazil.
Europe’s WEEE directive also heavily regulates the movement of e-waste for recycling and bans its export from the European Union for disposal.
It is also illegal for richer countries that are party to the Basel Convention to export hazardous waste to poor nations, unless the receiving government has given prior consent.
However, unscrupulous companies can get around these rules by labeling e-waste as second-hand goods for recycling. Also the biggest e-waste exporter, the United States, is not a party to the convention.
Another European law is having positive effects beyond Europe. The Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive bans various hazardous substances like lead and mercury in electrical and electronic equipment.
This has led the world’s five major mobile phone companies, which together have 80 percent of the market, to eliminate these substances from all of their phones – not just those on sale in Europe.
UNEP says the long-term solution to e-waste is to set up large and efficient recycling facilities in major developing nations, to safely manage the waste as well as create jobs, improve health and recover valuable metallic resources.
Basel Action Network has plenty of information and story ideas for journalists reporting on e-waste on its website.
Another good resource for journalists is the e-waste knowledge base set up by the Swiss government. It includes an online library of reports on e-waste and case studies from around the world. For story ideas it has a news archive that tracks global media coverage of e-waste issues.
Journalists can investigate how much e-waste their country produces and whether this is recycled, burned, buried, or exported to another country.
If recycling takes place, journalists can investigate what safety checks are in place and whether the workers are experiencing any health problems that might be linked to their exposure to e-waste.
Another angle for journalists is security and cyber crime. In 2009, Canadian journalism students who investigated e-waste in three countries found used computer hard drives that originated in the United States on sale in Ghana.
The hard drives, which had been recovered from e-waste, included sensitive data about multi-million dollar defense contract that involved the Pentagon and US Department of Homeland Security.
The University of British Columbia website has more detail and a short video clip from the resulting documentary film.
CASE STUDIES – Recycling e-waste in Asia and Africa
The city of Guiyu in China has thousands of businesses devoted to recycling imported e-waste and recovering valuable metals from old computers and other equipment.
This industry supports thousands of jobs but causes heavy pollution of the city’s streams and drinking water, and is linked to high levels of lead poisoning among Giuyu’s children.
PBS Frontline has an excellent collection of case study material, focusing on e-waste in Ghana, but including information about China, India, Nigeria and other countries.
The journalistic collection includes video, interactive maps, a guide to recycling and information on US and international laws.