Amount of E-waste Explodes, World Lags Behind, With Much Reaching Pirate Sites

Despite progress in the collection of electronic waste in Israel, many obstacles still lie ahead

Zafrir Rinat
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Computers in a recycling plant, northern Israel, October 2020.
Computers in a recycling plant, northern Israel, October 2020.Credit: צפריר רינת
Zafrir Rinat

On Wednesday, the world marked International E-Waste Day, an initiative aiming is to raise awareness about one of the biggest pollution problems the world is currently facing - and one that, according to UN data, is only expected to worsen.

In Israel, although actors report some improvements, the lack of clear monitoring and collated data mean there is uncertainty as to what should be the next steps. 

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In 2019, the world produced 53 million tons of e-waste, of which less than a fifth was collected to be recycled or reused, a report published by the UN, the WHO, the German government and several international NGOs found. By the end of this decade, the annual quantity is expected to rise dramatically, to just under 75 million tons.

Huge amounts of electronics were thrown away even though they could have been used, making this a valuable industry. The report estimates the e-waste recycling market is worth around $57 billion. 

The problem highlights the global disparity of wealth, with the largest amount of e-waste per capita (16.2 kilos) found in Europe, and the lowest in Asia and Africa. 

Yet, a significant proportion of e-waste ends up at pirate recycling plants in developing countries such as Ghana, where burning and acids are sometimes used to separate the metals. E-waste contains toxic metals like mercury and lead, and they pollute the environment when not properly treated.

Recycling e-waste is not that simple. Some products contain rare precious metals like germanium and indium, but they cannot be easily separated from the electronic device. The vast majority of electronic products were not designed to facilitate efficient recycling.

In Israel, a law mandates that e-waste must be collected and sent for recycling. Two corporations, MAI and Ecommunity, are responsible for the collection. Their operations are financed by importers of the electronic products, with which the companies have signed agreements.

Currently, collection happens in one of two ways, either by receiving old devices from customers buying new ones, or through curb-side collection in dedicated places.

The aim set by the law is for half of all electronic waste - and both companies are positive about being on track, reporting progress in the scope of e-waste collection in recent years. Despite these claims, it’s hard to know for certain just how much progress has been made, since the Environment Ministry does not provide up-to-date reports on the law’s implementation.

Ecommunity, a social enterprise which strives to employ people with disabilities, reportedly collected 120,000 large electronic products (washing machines, dishwashers, ovens, dryers) in 2019, and about half a million small electronic devices.

The coronavirus crisis has heightened the value of the company’s activity. Due to the economic situation, there is greater demand now for refurbished computers and their cost is lower, director Omri de Garcia says. The company is also involved in a large operation that seeks to provide reusable computers to families that cannot afford to buy new ones.

Electronics recycling workshop, New Delhi, India.
Electronics recycling workshop, New Delhi, India.Credit: ADNAN ABIDI / Reuters

The e-waste that is collected is transferred to recycling plants in Israel, says MAI CEO Amnon Sharoor, and at the end of the process, the raw materials are transferred to other countries to be used in new products. “Because of the law’s application, a successful local recycling industry has developed and dozens of new plants have opened, while plants for the recycling of plastics and other materials have been closing,” Sharoor says.

There are still significant obstacles to the law’s full implementation. Only some of the local authorities are involved, limiting the capacity for collection. Also, a large amount of e-waste is smuggled to unlicensed plants over the Green Line. The main location of these plants, near the Lachish hills, has become a source of fires that pollute the environment and endanger Palestinians and Israelis alike. Another problem, says De Garcia, is the lack of clear regulations on how to treat each type of product and each component of e-waste, unlike in Europe.

As important as it is to recycle e-waste, we shouldn’t forget that the manufacturing of these products also has a major impact on the environment long before they become waste. For one thing, the mining of the materials necessary to produce these products causes extensive damage to natural areas. Recycling provides only partial replacement of the materials, so the mining continues on a massive scale. A solution for this has yet to be found, and before too long, the pollution caused by the manufacturing and disposal of electronics will be so great that the impact will be impossible to compensate by recycling.

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