An E-Waste Solution?

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In today’s fast paced, technology-driven world, it seems like the minute the latest gadget hits your hand it’s nearly obsolete, with another upgraded version ready to take its place in a matter of months.

This is great news for the technology market, but it presents a unique challenge for waste management: the continuous growth of e-waste.

According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, e-waste is “any unwanted electronic device” and “frequently contains hazardous materials, predominantly lead and mercury.” According to the EPA, the U.S. is the world’s leader in generating e-waste.

Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition estimates that the U.S. exports enough e-waste each year to fill 5,126 shipping containers, which when stacked, would reach 8 miles high. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

To help address the e-waste dilemma on a global level, the newly created Ewaste Foundation, based in the Netherlands, aims to decrease the e-waste problem in developing countries by neutralizing waste during the disassembling process.

Although the organization was just created in August, the non-profit group has big plans for a global impact.

The Issue with E-Waste

As developing countries embrace technological trends, older electronics are finding their way into nations’ waste management systems.

In the U.S. alone, the EPA estimates that nearly 40 million computers become obsolete each year. In addition to computers, devices such as televisions, computer accessories, printers, scanners, fax machines, cell phones and more are also considered e-waste.

Of the 2.25 million tons of TVs, cell phones and computer products ready for end-of-life (EOL) management, 18 percent was collected for recycling and 82 percent was disposed of primarily in landfills, according to the EPA. Once disposed, e-waste products are handled as hazardous waste and are often securely stored, placed in hazardous waste landfills, sent back to the manufacturer to be refurbished or sent to developing countries to be disassembled.

Many e-waste exportation critics claim that workers overseas often work in dangerous conditions, and piles of e-waste are often dumped close to where large populations of people live. To help combat this growing problem, the Ewaste Foundation neutralizes e-waste once it makes its way to Africa, where many tons of e-waste are dissembled yearly.

The Ewaste Foundation Takes on the Challenge

Much like certificates that people can purchase to “offset” their carbon footprint, the Ewaste Foundation sells certificates to technology users to offset their e-waste footprint. Paul de Jong, founder and executive director of the Ewaste Foundation, says that once a certificate is purchased, the foundation will immediately begin to neutralize that amount of e-waste.

Photo: Flickr/CP

According to the EPA, Americans own approximately 24 electronic products per household. Photo: Flickr/CP

Although the organization is still in the fundraising stage, de Jong says they plan on neutralizing African e-waste in two key ways:

  • Transporting the hazardous leftover materials from sustainable e-waste disassembly processes out of Africa to Europe
  • Establishing efforts to enlarge the capacity of sustainable e-waste disassembly in Africa by setting up criteria and requirements, supporting new and improved initiatives and making e-waste disassembling profitable so new e-waste businesses can be established

“Our belief is that by helping e-waste management projects in these ways facilitates and makes possible a faster growth of their [e-waste disassembling plants’] capacity,” de Jong says. “This is an important aspect, as the current capacity of sustainable e-waste disassembly in Africa is nearly zero.”

Future Goals and Initiatives

According to the Ewaste Foundation’s Web site, purchasing certificates to help fund the organization gives technology users a direct and fast way to offset their footprint and helps the organization provide practical help to the sustainable e-waste process.

In addition to getting the entire process of neutralizing e-waste started once enough funding is available, the Ewaste Foundation is looking to partner with companies to help with exporting the hazardous waste from Africa to proper disposal in Europe.

“Next to selling certificates, we are looking for larger companies or institutes who want to fund us by ‘adopting’ a container of hazardous leftovers we take back from Africa on a regular basis,” de Jong adds.

And, although his organization is based in Europe, de Jong says American individuals and companies can be a vital part of helping the Ewaste Foundation take off and address the African e-waste problem.

“Our initiative in solving African e-waste is vital because its focus is in taking practical action at the back end of the e-waste stream,” he says.

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