E-waste: Production, Global Status and Impacts

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4 Forms or Scenario of E-waste

Scenario 1. E-waste formally collected

The "formal collection" activities usually fall under the requirements of national e-waste legislation, in which e-waste is collected by designated organisations, producers, and/or the government. This happens via retailers, municipal collection points, and/or pick-up services. The final destination for the collected e-waste is a specialised treatment facility, which recovers the valuable materials in an environmentally controlled way and manages the hazardous substances ecologically sound. Residuals will then go to incineration or controlled landfills.

Scenario 2. E-waste is the waste bins

In this scenario, the holder directly disposes of e-waste in regular waste bins with other types of household waste. Consequently, the disposed of e-waste is then treated with the regular mixed-waste from households. This waste is most likely incinerated or landfilled without material recycling, depending on the waste management infrastructure. Neither option is regarded as an appropriate technique for treating e-waste because both could negatively impact the environment and lead to resource loss.

Scenario 3. E-waste collected outside of formal systems in countries with a developed (e-)waste management infrastructure

In countries with developed waste management laws, e-waste is collected by individual waste dealers or companies and traded through various channels. In this scenario, possible destinations for e-waste include metal recycling and plastic recycling; however, the hazardous substances in e-waste are most likely not depolluted. In this scenario, e-waste is often not treated in a specialised recycling facility for e-waste management, and e-waste might also be exported.

Scenario 4. E-waste collected outside of formal systems in countries with no developed (e-)waste management infrastructure

In most developing countries, a significant number of informally self-employed people are engaged in collecting and recycling e-waste. The collection happens from door to door by buying or collecting used EEE or e-waste from households, businesses, and public institutions. They sell it to be repaired, refurbished, or to be dismantled. Dismantlers manually break the equipment down into usable, marketable components and materials. Recyclers burn, leach, and melt e-waste to convert it into secondary raw materials. This "backyard recycling" causes severe damage to the environment and human health. 

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Global Status/Statistics of E-waste

Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) consumption is strongly linked to overall global economic development. EEE has become indispensable in modern societies and is enhancing living standards. Still, its production and usage can be very resource demanding, which also illustrates a counter to that mere improvement in living standards. Higher levels of disposable incomes, growing urbanisation and mobility, and further industrialisation in some parts of the world lead to increasing amounts of EEE. On average, global EEE consumption's total weight (excluding photovoltaic panels) increases annually by 2.5 million metric tons (Mt). After its use, EEE is disposed of, generating a waste stream that contains hazardous and valuable materials. This waste stream is called e-waste or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), a term used mainly in Europe (Forti et al., 2020).

Approximately 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) or 7.3 kg per capita of e-waste (excluding PV panels) was generated in 2019. It is projected that the amount of e-waste produced will exceed 74Mt in 2030. Thus, the global quantity of e-waste is alarmingly increasing at almost 2 Mt per year. The global amount of e-waste in 2019 is mainly comprised of Small equipment (17.4 Mt), Large equipment (13.1 Mt), and Temperature exchange equipment (10.8 Mt). Screens and monitors, Small IT and telecommunication equipment, and Lamps represent a smaller share of the e-waste generated in 2019: 6.7 Mt, 4.7 Mt, and 0.9 Mt, respectively. Since 2014, the e-waste categories that have been increasing the most (in terms of the total weight of e-waste generated) are the Temperature exchange equipment (with an annual average of 7%), Large equipment (+5%), and Lamps and Small equipment (+4%). This trend is driven by the growing consumption of these products in lower-income countries, where the products enhance living standards. Small IT and telecommunication equipment have been growing slower, and Screens and monitors have shown a slight decrease (-1%). This decline can be explained by the fact that heavy CRT monitors and screens have been replaced by lighter flat panel displays lately, resulting in a decrease in the total weight even as the number of pieces grows (Forti et al., 2020).

In 2019, most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt), while the continent that produces the most in kg per capita in Europe (16.2 kg per capita). Europe is also the continent with the highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling rate (42.5%). The e-waste recorded as formally collected and recycled is substantially lower than the estimated e-waste generated in all other continents. Current statistics show that in 2019, Asia ranked second at 11.7%, the Americas and Oceania stood at 9.4% and 8.8%, respectively, while Africa ranked last at 0.9%. However, statistics can vary substantially across different regions as the consumption and disposal behaviour depends on several factors (e.g. income level, policy in place, the structure of the waste management system, etc.) (Forti et al., 2020).

As of October 2019, 71% of the world's population was covered by a national e-waste policy, legislation, or regulation. Improvements have been made since 2014, when only 44% of the population was covered. The high coverage rate is affected because the most populous countries, such as China and India, have national legal instruments in place. However, this population coverage equates to only 78 of the 193 countries. Thus, less than half of all countries worldwide are currently covered by policy, legislation, or regulation (Forti et al., 2020). 

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E-waste Impact on the Health of Children and Workers

Children live, work, and play in informal e-waste recycling sites. Adults and children can be exposed by inhaling toxic fumes and particulate matter, through skin contact with corrosive agents and chemicals, and by ingesting contaminated food and water. Children are also at risk from additional routes of exposure. Some hazardous chemicals can be passed from mothers to children during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Young children playing outside or in nature frequently put their hands, objects, and soil in their mouths, increasing the risk of exposure. Fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to damage from exposure to toxicants in e-waste because of their physiology, behaviour, and additional routes of exposure (Landrigan & Goldman 2011; Pronczuk de Garbino 2004).

Adverse health effects recently found to be associated with e-waste: Since the publication of the previous e-waste monitor in 2017, studies on the adverse health effects from e-waste have increased. These studies have highlighted the dangers to human health from exposure to well-studied toxins, such as lead. Recently, research has found that unregulated e-waste recycling is associated with increasing numbers of adverse health effects. These include adverse birth outcomes (Zhang Y et al. 2018), altered neurodevelopment (Huo X et al. 2019b), adverse learning outcomes (Soetrisno et al. 2020), DNA damage (Alabi OA et al. 2012.), adverse cardiovascular effects (Cong X et al. 2018), adverse respiratory effects (Amoabeng Nti AA et al. 2020), adverse effects on the immune system (Huo X et al. 2019b), skin diseases (Decharat S et al. 2019; Seith et al. 2019), hearing loss (Xu L et al. 2020), and cancer (Davis JM et al. 2019). 

Because of their unique vulnerability and susceptibility to environmental toxicants, infants and children have focused significantly on health effects studies. Since the publication of the previous e-waste monitor in 2017, research on unregulated e-waste recycling and its associations with adverse health outcomes has expanded. These studies have highlighted the dangers to human health from exposure to well-studied toxins, such as lead. The following section highlights the most recent findings between e-waste recycling and human health outcomes. 

Studies have reported associations between exposure to informal e-waste recycling and adverse birth outcomes (stillbirth, premature birth, lower gestational age, lower birth weight and length, and lower APGAR scores), increased or decreased growth, altered neurodevelopment, adverse learning and behavioural outcomes, immune system function, and lung function. Multiple studies have investigated the impact of e-waste exposure on thyroid function in children but have reported inconsistent results. A small number of studies have also suggested that DNA damage, changes in gene expression, cardiovascular regulatory changes, rapid onset of blood coagulation, hearing loss and olfactory memory may be associated with exposure to informal e-waste management.  

The lack of workplace health and safety regulations leads to an increased risk of injuries for workers in informal e-waste dismantling and recycling. E-waste workers have also reported stress, headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and dizziness. Among adults involved in informal e-waste management or living in e-waste communities, DNA damage has been associated with exposure to chemicals in e-waste. A few studies have also reported effects on liver function, fasting blood glucose levels, male reproductive and genital disorders, and effects on sperm quality from exposure to informal e-waste recycling. There has been a significant increase in research into the health impacts of e-waste recycling over the last decade. It is difficult to assess whether exposure to e-waste causes specific health outcomes because of studies' small populations, the variety of chemical exposures measured, the type of products measured, and the lack of prospective long-term studies. Yet the body of research suggests there is a significant risk of harm, especially to children who are still growing and developing. Individual chemicals in e-waste such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, PCBs, PBDEs, and PAHs have severe impacts on nearly every organ system (Grant et al. 2013).

Availability of health statistics: In addition to reliable statistics on e-waste collection, processing, and work conditions, harmonised data on the number of people exposed, exposure to hazardous toxicants, and health effects are critical to understanding the impact of e-waste management. Harmonised statistics are vital for monitoring health impacts, informing decision-makers of the scope of the problem, and evaluating interventions.

Exposure: Limited data are available on the number of people exposed to e-waste. Only rough estimates of the number of people involved in informal e-waste management internationally and in impacted countries (EMG 2019; ILO, 2019; Perkins DN 2014; Prakash et al. 2010; Xing GH et al. 2009). It is often unclear what methods have been used to produce these estimates. They usually do not consider individuals living in communities but not involved in informal recycling, children, or those exposed to pollutants through environmental contamination. 

Large populations in e-waste recycling hotspots may be at risk. But just because a country doesn't have a concentrated neighbourhood of e-waste recycling activity doesn't mean it has no e-waste problem. E-waste is part of a larger waste context and is often collected door-to-door or sent to landfills as part of general waste. Among the poorest and most vulnerable, waste-pickers may be exposed in communities worldwide (Gutberlet J & Uddin SMN 2017). In Latin America, e-waste is often recycled in small shops across cities instead of concentrated in one area (ITU et al. 2016a). 

Many studies have measured the daily intake and body burden of single e-waste pollutants, but they have been limited to small numbers of participants (Song & Li 2014). Long-term monitoring of occupational exposure, limitations on the body, environmental levels, and health is needed to quantify the impact of e-waste (Heacock et al. 2018). Experts have recommended that exposure and environmental monitoring include metals, small particulate matter (PM2.5), persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and PAHs (Heacock et al. 2018). Large biomonitoring initiatives are being developed to monitor exposure to chemical hazards (Prüss-Ustün A et al. 2011) and may be a good model for e-waste.

Health effects: Although there is a growing amount of information about the health effects of e-waste exposure, there is limited data available about the number of people suffering from the impact. Academic studies of exposure and health effects have primarily been small studies of 50 to 450 participants (Grant K et al. 2013; Song Q & Li J 2015; Zeng X et al. 2019b; Zeng Z et al. 2018a). Some of these studies have reported contamination of control groups, suggesting the widespread transport of contaminants (Sepúlveda et al. 2010; Song Q & Li J 2015). No large-scale longitudinal studies have been published. There are significant challenges to collecting e-waste-related health statistics, such as many potential health outcomes, the challenges of studying chemical mixtures, the lack of confirmed exposure-outcome relationships, and the long latency periods of some diseases. Internationally harmonised indicators can assist in measuring the number of people at risk of e-waste-related health effects and with monitoring trends over time.  

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