What Happens to Our Electronic Waste?

How many of us have mobile phones and other electronics stashed away unused at home?

Since the digital revolution, there has been an immense surge in the amount of electronic waste generated globally. Do you know how to properly dispose electronic appliances and devices once they have reached the end of their life?

Electronic waste or e-waste comprises of toxic elements such as mercury and lead. Many of these items contain materials such as microchips and steel frames that can actually be recycled. Throwing these items directly into a landfill leads to not only wastage of perfectly good raw material but more importantly, pollution to the environment.

The components of mobile phones are made from materials such as plastic and metals, as well as chemical substances and minerals. While disused devices stored at home do not pose any risk to one’s health or the environment, the same cannot be said of phones that are dumped indiscriminately. E-Waste is listed as scheduled waste under the Environmental Quality (Scheduled Wastes) Regulations 2005 in Malaysia.

Toxic substances that seep into the ground from landfills will affect the soil quality and also contaminate agricultural produce if the area is used for farming activities. It will pollute the drainage system and rivers, affecting both land and sea life. Electronic waste contributes to air pollution as well.

According to World Bank statistics, Malaysia’s cellular service subscriptions ballooned from 10,817 in 1986 to 44.6 million in 2019.  The Malaysian Department of Environment (DOE), through its studies, provided the following e-waste estimates for television sets, personal computers and rechargeable batteries – from 463,866 metric tonnes in 2011 which almost doubled to 832,692 metric tonnes in 2020. Its e-waste estimates for air-conditioners and washing machines rose from 172,281 metric tonnes in 2010 to 211,348 metric tonnes on 2020. 2

In a report by The Malaysian Reserve, Universiti Putra Malaysia Faculty of Forestry and Environment senior lecturer Dr Mohd Yusoff Ishak said the time has come for Malaysia to enforce the ‘waste to wealth’ concept or circular economy system to eliminate waste and ensure the continual use of resources. “In a circular economy, every item that has reached the end of its lifespan serves as an input in another cycle. For example, food waste which can be turned into compost and used as fertiliser,” he said.

“The mobile phone’s battery, for instance, has electronic components that can still be used. In fact, a little bit of gold plating is used in some of the components in the battery. If 26 million phones are sent to a factory for recycling in Malaysia, just imagine how much gold can be extracted from the components,” he said. Mohd Yusoff also suggested that a new legislation be introduced to make it compulsory for mobile phone producers to buy back the devices at the end of their lifespan.

In Malaysia, efforts to recycle e-waste are already underway and to date, the DOE has issued licences to 21 e-waste collection centres to collect and recycle electronic products more systematically for full waste recovery. E-waste generators from industries must ensure e-waste is transported to these licensed premises. The DOE’s website has a list of the collection points in 12 states and information on the collection points and the items it accepts.

Consumers towards e-waste should segregate e-waste from domestic waste which should then be collected by licensed collectors. Recyclers must ensure the recycling process is done properly and efficient recovery process is applied. This includes minimising the generation of waste and residues generated.

A number of electronic chain stores in the Klang Valley promote recycling programs that offer incentives to the public who bring in e-waste as well as attractive trade-in programs. In recent years, there have been a number of local private companies that provide e-waste collection services to consumers which will then be recycled and sold for a profit.

While there aren’t any completely sustainable consumer electronic products in the market, there are some improvements with environmentally friendly packaging and materials. Despite a lack of industry standard, there has been progress in the area. For example, Apple has started to reintegrate part of the raw materials from old iPhones into the production chain. Some notebook and computer models are made from recycled aluminium while HP has unveiled devices whose mechanical parts are largely made from recycled materials.3

Harvard University’s Sustainability department suggests some ways consumers can reduce their e-waste footprint on the environment4:

  • Re-evaluate your purchases. Do you really need that extra gadget? Try finding one device with multiple functions.
  • Extend the life of your electronics. Buy a case, keep your device clean, and avoid overcharging the battery.
  • Buy environmentally friendly electronics where possible
  • Donate used electronics to social programs or recycling organisations
  • Reuse large electronics
  • Recycle electronics and batteries in e-waste recycling centres
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