What Happens to Electronic Waste?

Indonesia needs legal enforcement on e-waste and manufacturers need to produce repairable and upgradable devices: Greenpeace

By Karmila Bain
Monday, July 24, 2017

Ten years on since the launch of the very first smartphone, over seven billion have been produced. The ubiquitous devices are an essential part of everyday day life for a large swathe of the world’s population, and it is estimated that by 2020, more than 70 percent of the global population will own one, according to Greenpeace.

“From Smart to Senseless: The Global Impact of 10 Years of Smartphones,” published by Greenpeace in February, revealed that among people aged 18-35, nearly two in every three own a smartphone.

But while smartphones and other gadgets are big business, the environmental consequences of the public thirst for connectivity devices cannot be ignored.

Increasingly manufactures are designing products that take away the individual’s ability to replace the battery or upgrade the memory. As a result, when the phone is damaged, or the battery needs replacing, there is no option but to discard it and buy a new one. Moreover, companies are designing phones with a reduced lifespan, and rapidly bringing out an array of new models with features that are not much different. 

When smartphones and other gadgets are no longer used by their owners, they become electronic or e-waste. And here’s the rub. E-waste contains hazardous chemicals, so it’s not enough to just toss them in the trash. Which raises the problem of where to collect the e-waste so it can be disposed of in a safe and environmentally friendly way.

Greenpeace Indonesia told AmCham Indonesia that it is calling on all smartphone manufactures to develop a new business model in order to reduce the environmental impact of their products. The take-back program, as suggested by Greenpeace is one option. Manufactures are encouraged to minimize the use of new materials by recycling components and materials, making them easily repairable and upgradable.

The obstacle for Indonesia is that it doesn’t have many electronics manufactures, just assembly points, although there are a few chip manufactures. But what is more problematic is that Indonesia has not yet established regulations on e-waste, especially the B3 (toxic and hazardous materials) waste.

Moreover, a Greenpeace Indonesia investigation found no take-back programs in Indonesia. “The simple reason is because the government has not yet forced them to do so,” Greenpeace campaigner Ahmad Ashov Birry told AmCham.

Lack of regulations

“When we realized that Indonesia had not regulated e-waste, we did a deep survey on where the e-waste ended up,” he said. “The result is that e-waste ends up everywhere, involving many informal sectors. We identified a few regions in Indonesia – Batam, Jakarta and Surabaya – that are mostly the places where e-waste ended up.”

“We found there was no standard technique in recycling the e-waste, which is very dangerous for the informal sector and the environment,” he added.

Most of the e-waste, especially gadgets, find their way to secondhand markets and gadget service stores. In Indonesia, finding e-waste in the garbage is gold for scavengers who often dismantle the phone just to get to the valuable chip, without realizing that the chemical B3 toxins can be dangerous to their health.

The e-waste that cannot be recycled then mixes with household waste, which again can be dangerous for environment. The hazardous chemicals seep through the soil and into the water, and are then consumed by plants, animals and humans. The B3 content is derived from the components containing heavy metals (mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium and arsenic) PVC and the hazardous compound polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

“We want manufacturers to commit to fully create or produce the devices with a high rate of recycling; make products that last longer and, ultimately, embrace the innovation of applying the circular production model,” Birry said.

Wikipedia defines the circular economy as a “regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy loops. This is [in] contrast to a linear economy which is a 'take, make, dispose' model of production.”

Innovation for a better environment

Greenpeace believes that consumers need to be smarter than their smartphones. Understanding the impact of e-waste is very important as this influences the next generation. Innovation makes life easier but attention needs to be paid to the consequences, the group believes.

“We are calling for all consumers to be smart in choosing gadgets that can accommodate all their needs,” said Birry. “In particular, manufactures [need] to embrace the closed-loop production model by using recycled materials such as precious metal and rare earth elements, create devices that last longer or are repairable and upgradable, and create a friendly manufacturing environment by eliminating hazardous chemicals and powering data centers and offices with renewable energy.

“Although the regulation of e-waste is still under process by the government of Indonesia, there needs to be movement on how to treat e-waste,” Birry said.

The Jakarta Environmental Agency provides residents of Jakarta with e-waste drop-off points to collect their electronic waste. One is near Bundaran HI, and is available every Sunday during Car Free Day Sudirman–Thamrin; there is also a drop-off point at Jl. Mandala V No. 67, Cililitan, Kramat Jati, Jakarta Timur.

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