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Our e-waste problem

Jennifer CollinsAugust 15, 2016

Humans produce a lot of electronic trash and that can pose a problem for the environment. Share your thoughts on how we could reduce the amount of e-waste we dump.

Symbolbild Elektromüll
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Kettles, cell phones and vacuum cleaners - when they're broken, or when we no longer need them, their fate is the same as anything else: They end up in the trash.

Worldwide, we generated nearly 42 million tons of electronic waste in 2014 - and that number is set to rise to 50 million tons by 2017, according to the UN. A lot of that waste is created in developed countries like Germany and ends up in African countries like Nigeria and Ghana, where it creates problems for people and the environment, says the organization.

Symbolbild Alte Mobiltelefone Handy Entsorgung
Image: imago/imagebroker

Kitchen, washing and bathroom devices like toasters and electric shavers made up the bulk of e-waste at 60 percent. IT equipment and items like smartphones accounted for 7 percent. In Europe, Germans are among the biggest producers of e-waste, creating about 21.6 kilograms of waste per capita each year. Compare this to the average Ghanaian who creates 1.4 kilograms annually.

Infografik Elektroschrott ausgewählte Länder Englisch

About 16 percent of e-waste produced in 2014 was properly recycled or reused, according to the same UN report. But a lot of valuable metals and other resources are contained inside our electronics. Recycling these can reduce e-waste and to an extent replace the need for mining such metals.

Elektroschrott in Afrika
Image: Fotolia/Eisenhans

E-waste provides an important source of income for vast numbers of people who work stripping and recycling discarded items, many of which can be repaired and sold at a low cost. But there is a significant illegal and unregulated market in the transport and scrapping of electronic appliances thought to be worth around 17 billion euros ($19 billion) per year. A number of the chemicals contained in these products are harmful to the people who work in recycling them. They also pollute the ground, water and air, if not handled properly.

Symbolbild Recycling Seltene Erden Elektroschrott Elektrogeräte
Image: DW

And those items that can't be repaired end up languishing in dumps like the one in Agbogbloshie, a neighborhood in the Ghanaian capital of Accra. It's been dubbed an e-waste magnet with old electronics flowing to the dump from other parts of Africa and beyond. People there burn TV sets, fridges and other devices to access copper and other precious materials.

Ghana Umwelt Elektroschrott Giftmüll
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It will take a concerted international effort to stem the flow of e-waste. But in the meantime, individuals can cut down on their own trash by disposing properly of such items or by fixing rather than discarding them where possible. Repair Cafés springing up around the globe, for instance, encourage consumers to bring in their old electronics where volunteer experts are on hand to teach visitors how to fix their old goods.

Don't bin it, fix it!