A new study from the United Nations University states that e-waste is rising to dangerous levels in Asian countries. As more and more people in those countries can afford to buy electronics, devices like smartphones, computers, TVs, refrigerators and other gadgets, the piles of discarded electronics are growing and quickly.
The study says that the amount of e-waste in Asia has grown by 63 percent in just the past five years. For a long time, many Asian countries, especially China, have served as a dumping ground for electronic waste from around the world, but with the rise in e-waste from within these countries as well, the problem is becoming much worse.
"For many countries that already lack infrastructure for environmentally sound e-waste management, the increasing volumes are a cause for concern," Ruediger Kuehr, the report's co-author and head of the UN University's Sustainable Cycles Program, said to the Daily Mail.
While there are electronics recycling facilities around Asia, the devices are not always properly disposed of. Practices like open burning of electronics to extract the copper or acid baths to remove precious metals like gold and silver from circuit boards create dangerous conditions for the workers and produce toxic fumes that threaten entire communities. Illegal dumping of electronics causes the leaching of harmful materials into the soil and water supply.
"In the absence of protective materials such as gloves, glasses, masks, etc., inhalation of and exposure to hazardous chemicals and substances directly affect workers' health," co-author Shunichi Honda said. "Associations have been reported between exposure from improper treatment of e-waste and altered thyroid function, reduced lung function, negative birth outcomes, reduced childhood growth, negative mental health outcomes, impaired cognitive development, cytotoxicity and genotoxicity."
Between 2010 and 2015, 13 million tons of electronics were discarded in the 12 countries that the study looked at (Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam). Of that total, China accounted for almost half and over that period it more than doubled its generation of e-waste.
Hong Kong had the worst level of e-waste per capita with each person generating about 47.8 pounds of it in 2015 alone. Singapore and Taiwan also had high levels of e-waste at 41.9 pounds per person, while Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines had the lowest at only 3 pounds per person.
The university said that steps like promoting awareness of global e-waste laws as well as providing guidance on best practices for recycling and reusing electronics would help to solve the problem. We can do our part by taking care of our gadgets, repairing instead of replacing and then finding responsible recyclers when the devices reach the end of their life.