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Managing e-waste is key to our sustainability

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The global production of e-waste is experiencing significant expansion (Hans Ripa - Unsplash)

By: Dr. Rulia Akhtar

The global production of electronic and electrical equipment waste, commonly known as e-waste, is experiencing significant expansion at an annual rate of 3-5%. This results in an annual global generation of over 50 million metric tons of e-waste, equivalent to an average of approximately seven kilograms of e-waste per person.

Dr. Rulia Akhtar

The swift evolution of technology, increasing consumer appetite for electronic products, and shorter product lifespans have collectively propelled e-waste into becoming one of the most rapidly growing waste categories worldwide. From 2010 to 2019, there was an approximately 60 percent surge in the production of electronic waste, and this trend appears to be continuing unabated.

Projections indicate that by 2030, the volume of e-waste generated globally will surpass 74 million metric tons. Consequently, the world is witnessing an alarming annual increase of nearly 2 million metric tons in e-waste. This escalating issue is particularly pronounced in Malaysia due to the expanding urban population and the adoption of contemporary lifestyles, leading to a rapid growth in domestic e-waste production stemming from households, businesses, and institutions.

Electronic waste, encompassing both industrial and household sources, stands out as one of Malaysia’s most rapidly expanding types of solid waste. According to data from the Environment Department, Malaysia accumulated 2,459 tonnes of household electronic waste in 2021. The overall estimate suggests that Malaysia generates an astonishing annual volume of e-waste exceeding 365,000 tonnes, surpassing the weight of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers. Malaysia generated a total of 280,000 tonnes of e-waste, equivalent to 8.8 kilograms per capita.

As Malaysia progresses from being a middle-high income country to a high-income one, the production of e-waste is anticipated to rise further. At present, Malaysia’s definition of e-waste encompasses only six items: mobile phones, computers, televisions, air-conditioners, refrigerators, and washing machines. If e-waste is disposed of improperly, such as being thrown into rivers, landfills, incinerated, or sent to informal sectors, it poses a significant risk to our well-being, impacting human health and leading to environmental degradation. Research findings indicate that Malaysia is expected to produce approximately 24.5 million units of e-waste by 2025.

In developing nations, the handling of e-waste has emerged as an environmental issue for several reasons. These include the illegal importation or illicit trafficking of e-waste, the swift expansion of domestically generated e-waste, the absence of effective prevention and reduction measures, haphazard dumping and incorrect disposal of e-waste, limited public awareness regarding the environmental and health hazards linked to the toxic components of e-waste, and the challenge of identifying and addressing illegal e-waste recycling operations.

Hence, altering government perspectives, enacting relevant e-waste-related regulations, curbing the disposal of e-waste, enforcing extended producer responsibilities, and facilitating the transfer of technology for efficient e-waste recycling have emerged as critical focal points in the sustainable management of electronic waste in developing nations. The 12th Malaysia Plan aims to achieve a 40 percent recycling rate by 2025.

In 2020, Malaysia’s recycling rate was approximated to be 36.67 percent, which lags behind neighbouring countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and Thailand, where rates stood at 59 percent, 60 percent, 49 percent, and 34 percent, respectively. As reported by the Department of Environment (DOE) in Malaysia, the household e-waste recycling rate in the country does not exceed 25 percent. This implies that hundreds of thousands of metric tons of e-waste end up in landfills annually.

The production of e-waste has emerged as a pressing and contemporary global concern, leading to adverse consequences for the environment and human well-being due to the inclusion of toxic metals and chemical compounds. Inadequate e-waste disposal practices in Malaysia, as is the case in numerous other nations, yield substantial detrimental effects on both the environment and the health of the general populace. E-waste encompasses discarded electronic devices and apparatus like computers, smartphones, televisions, and appliances, all of which house hazardous materials and chemicals capable of seeping into the environment if not handled responsibly.

Toxic components contained within e-waste can be discharged into the environment and pose health risks through various mechanisms. Initially, because of inadequate e-waste disposal practices, where it is typically mixed with regular municipal waste and ends up in non-hazardous landfills or is subjected to incineration, while some is carelessly dumped. In these situations, the toxic components in e-waste can bio accumulate in animals and people due to the entry of polluted water by crops into the food chain.

Second, the environment is exposed to toxic substances when improper dismantling and the recovery of valuable materials involve methods like open burning and acid baths. These practices release hazardous substances into the atmosphere. Inhaling these harmful substances can cause breathing difficulties, cardiovascular disease, and other health problems in the surrounding communities.

Third, the workers and labourers face serious health and work-related risks because there are insufficient methods and supporting structures. The long-term effects of exposure to these toxins can include lead poisoning, neurological disorders, and issues with reproduction. In contrast to employees in different sectors, workers involved in e-waste recycling and recovery face a higher risk of encountering detrimental health consequences.

Fourth, inadequate disposal of electronic waste results in the waste of precious resources and the release of toxic substances, which worsens the environment. Ecosystems may suffer, and the natural order of nearby environments may be upset.

Fifth, toxic chemicals from e-waste have the potential to leak into groundwater, contaminating sources of drinking water and posing a direct threat to public health.

Sixth, valuable materials like gold, silver, copper, and rare earth elements can be found in e-waste. A poor method of disposal results in the loss of these resources as well as a lost chance to recycle and lessen the negative effects of mining on the environment.

Last but not least, insufficient regulation and enforcement can facilitate the continuation of illegal dumping and informal recycling practises, exacerbating the e-waste problem.

In order to address these problems, Malaysia has improved its e-waste management procedures through the introduction of rules and programmes that support ethical recycling and disposal. To reduce the detrimental effects of improper e-waste disposal in the nation’s environment and on

public health, however, there are still many obstacles to overcome. A sustainable solution must include formal recycling infrastructure, effective regulation, and public awareness campaigns.

The author is a Research Fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies (UAC), Universiti Malaya, and may be reached at uacds@um.edu.my

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