According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017, a report jointly produced by the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations University and International Solid Waste Association, 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste which were an equivalent of almost 4,500 Effiel Towers were generated around the world in 2016. It is expected that the amount could rise beyond that to 52.2 million metric tons by 2021. As estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the rate of growth of waste is two or times faster than other waste streams in the US.
With the expansion of markets into the developing countries, there is an increase in the number of people adapting and discarding the newest technology. Likewise, product replacement cycles are getting shorter. It has resulted in more problems as the quantity of e-waste generated keeps increasing.
Regulators are making efforts to reduce the generation of e-waste. It is, therefore, necessary for manufacturers, retailers, and end-users to have a better understanding of the effect of e-waste on their businesses as well as what should be done to prevent consequences that could be costly.
The significant risks of e-waste are health, environmental and safety risks. An example is a typical desktop computer which contains 57 grams of lead, 0.01 grams of arsenic, 2.5 grams of barium, 0.8 grams of antimony as well as the small quantity of other toxic metals. Cathode-ray tube (CRT) that are mostly used in older glass video displays have four pounds of lead. All these types of substances found in e-waste are poisonous and carcinogenic and can equally accumulate in the water, soil, and food.
Companies that do not properly dispose of these products that bring about harm will face the appropriate legal and regulatory penalties. A company named AT&T faced such legal penalties in2014 when it illegally dumped waste and fined over $50 million by the authorities in California. The company paid $23.8 million in civil penalties which included $3 million that was channeled towards enforcement actions in the future while they also have to pay another $28 million spread over five years to make process changes to guide against violations in the future. Also, another company Target paid $22.5 million in 2011 as fines for illegal dumping of electronics collected from California stores.
Likewise, a recycling firm Executive Recycling was fined $4.5 million by the Colorado authorities with two of the company’s executives sentenced to federal prison time for sending electronic wastes to foreign countries such as China illegally, despite telling their customers the electronic waste would be disposed of in a way that would not cause harm to the environment.
There are various regulations worldwide governing the disposal of e-waste, but Basel Convention on Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal is the primary international regulation. It is a multilateral treaty which aims at reducing waste trading patterns that are socially and environmentally hazardous. 186 countries signed the convention, though the penalties vary per country because the agreement has to be transposed into law by nations that signed it. Penalties range from a maximum fine of €760,000 ($940,000) in the Netherlands to as high as 18 million pesos ($10 million) in Columbia.
Depending on how severe the offense is, penalties in the UK ranges from as low as fee hundreds to as high as thousands of pounds. The Basel Convention is yet to be ratified in the US though they are one of the signatory countries, which means the treaty is not applicable in the country.
It is also necessary for multinational companies to consider both regional and national laws. The e-waste management in the European Union is regulated by a uniform body WEEE Directive (2012/19/EU). The directive centers around how to collect, recycle recover e-waste which leads to increase in quantity of e-waste being processed. The directive is based on the principle of extended responsibility of the which requires that the producers should organize and finance the collection, treatment, and recycling of their products at the end of life. Despite having the directive, EU countries are finding it difficult to adhere to the directive.
The EU countries have only managed to collect 45% of the e-waste generated since 2016, which could increase to 65% by 2019. Official reports, however, have it that the level of the e-waste generated has remained at 37% in the last decade. In the UK, refusal to comply with the directive can result in multiple fines and jail sentences. An example is when Churngold Recycling Lyd and two of its executive directors were fined £32,450 and suspended sentences in the UK last October after they were found guilty of disposing of thousands of tons of e-waste illegally.
Even though the US had no national law on e-waste, the District of Columbia and 25 other states have specific producer responsibility and disposal laws for technology products. However, it is only a minimal part of this law that covers electronics that are large.
According to the National Center for Electronics Recycling, Jason Linnel, most company policies are as a result of the policies put in place in different states. Manufacturers of covered devices such as consumer electronics except for other appliances and white goods in most of the states must fulfill their e-waste obligations by setting up and paying so that so forms of recycling can take place in the state. Companies must what is necessary to comply with the laws.