As global production of electronic products continues to grow, so does the resulting waste. Though many products can be recycled or refurbished, electronic waste, or e-waste, is a fast-growing problem that presents serious threats to human health and the environment. A recently relaunched online introductory course explores the challenges to managing and recycling e-waste.
The global economy produces approximately 50 million tons of e-waste a year and is expected to grow to 120 million tons per year by 2050. Only 20% of e-waste is properly, or formally, recycled by disassembling the electronics, separating and categorizing the contents by material. The remaining 80% ends up in landfills or is recycled informally and often dangerously. Informal recycling, often without governmental oversight and safeguards such as protective equipment or proper ventilation, includes extraction practices such as burning devices or melting devices with acids, posing threats to human health and the environment.
The MOOC is a collaborative effort of
- A team of European climate organizations and universitiesThe European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Climate-Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC)
- The Executive Secretary for the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme
- The United Nations Environment Programme
- The United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
- The World Health Organization
The E-Waste Challenge Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) uses a series of lectures to share best management practices in identifying and disposing of or recycling electronic products. Referencing international technical guidelines on transboundary movements of e-waste, the MOOC explains how e-waste moves between countries and how proper management of its disposal reduces the environmental health impacts related to hazardous materials.
“E-waste is a new major unrecognized health hazard, particularly affecting the health of future generations,” said Marie-Noel Brune Drisse, WHO lead for children’s environmental health. “Most e-waste is recycled in informal, poorly controlled settings, often lacking adequate worker protection. Direct exposures during recycling and indirect exposures through environmental contamination have consequences on our health.”
The course is designed for researchers, policy makers, and e-waste transporters and recyclers interested in enacting changes to the informal recycling market. The online learning materials consist of videos, audio, and additional links curated from international e-waste specialists. The course is broken down into five mini-courses. The mini-courses include reducing environmental harm from e-waste, maternal and children’s health, and sustainably recycling e-waste.
E-Waste and Children’s Health
Women and children make up 30 percent of the workforce in informal e-waste processing, leaving them particularly vulnerable to exposures from the breakdown of electrical and plastic materials. Those exposures to persistent organic pollutants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals can affect neurological and physiological development in children; additionally, e-waste can transfer across the placenta and through breast milk of nursing mothers. The MOOC dedicates a section of the course to women and children.
In countries that accept high volumes of e-waste, the potential to extract value from discarded electronic products containing rare earth metals such as gold has spurred an informal recycling industry. Informal recycling workers, including women and children who make up 30 percent of the workforce, can be directly exposed to hazardous chemicals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium during extraction. The final module of the MOOC explains how safe recycling practices can protect those workers and how recycling practices can support their local economies.
In addition, e-waste that is left in landfills can affect the natural environment by contaminating soils and groundwater. The MOOC explores the connection between the life cycle of electronic products to its impacts on climate change.
“As reflected in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, effectively addressing the e-waste challenge can only be achieved through joint action and collaboration between different sectors,” said Brune Drisse. “This MOOC is an example of such collaborations among global health leaders, academia, and nongovernmental organizations.”
The NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre works with WHO to raise awareness of controlling exposures to e-waste. NIEHS has hosted meetings and webinars to explore e-waste research and e-waste remains an important research area for many grantees.