Recently, an international scientific expert, Professor Ming Hung Wong from the Hong Kong Baptist University, expressed grave concern over the impact e-waste was having on children and called for immediate action. Electronic waste has become a major issue as they continue to pile up in landfills and generate hazardous toxins and gases that not only pose a serious threat to the environment but also have a frightening effect on humans. With advancements in technology and rising demand for the latest gadgets and appliances, there has been a massive rise in the amount of electronic waste being generated, adding up to the already existing heap of e-waste. According to 2012 figures, India alone generates about 8,00,000 tons of electronic scrap. Another study by UNEP reported that waste from computers alone in India would jump by 500%, while that from mobile phones would rise 18 times over 2007 figures by 2020. The worst part is – electronic waste affects children more severely than adults, and they are at a higher risk of developing health conditions as a result of exposure to e-waste. Another major concern in this respect is the employment of child labor in the informal electronic scrap recycling industry, particularly third world nations where most of the world’s electronic waste ends up. Let’s take a look at how electronic junk is affecting our future generations.

Electronic Waste: Stunting the Next Generation:
While expressing concern over the effect of e-waste on children Professor Ming Hung Wong added, “Electronic waste is the world’s fastest growing waste stream, rising by 3-5 per cent every year, due to the decreased lifespan of the average computer from six years to two.” Higher discard rates of electronics contribute to increased electronic waste generation. These old electronic gadgets contain many components that have hazardous elements and chemicals like mercury, beryllium, arsenic, lead and cadmium. These hazardous elements and toxins end up polluting the eco-system. Kids are more susceptible to the exposure to these toxic gases. More time spent outdoors and greater activity levels results in higher doses of toxic gases per body weight and lung surface area, making children more vulnerable to these toxins.

Apart from that, the prevalence of child labour in the informal recycling sector, especially in developing nations and third world countries in Asia and Africa is another major concern. The informal sector lacks the technology to process electronic waste in a responsible manner. Instead they make use of primitive and crude techniques like acid stripping and open air incineration to extract metals from electronic junk and dump the remnants. Such crude methods however, also release poisonous toxins into the environment leading to more pollution. Children working in such setups, work without any sort of protective gear and are exposed to these toxins and heavy metals, putting them at an increased risk of developing severe irreversible health conditions. Such children are reportedly suffering from breathing ailments, stomach diseases and skin ailments. Also infants, especially as a result of their hand-to-mouth behavior are even more vulnerable in areas where the soil and dust is contaminated with electronic waste toxins like lead.

Although currently it is difficult to estimate to what extent child labour is being employed at informal e-waste disposal sites, many studies have pointed out that children constitute a significant portion of the work force employed by electronic waste recycling sites in developing nations. Here are some disturbing facts and figures:

  • According to the latest report by ASSOCHAM, about 35,000 to 45,000 children between the ages of 10 and 14 are involved as “scavengers” or “waste-pickers” and dismantlers in the informal recycling sector in Delhi, India.
  • Estimates from reports by the International Labour Organization (ILO) state that at Ghana’s Agbogbloshie electronic junk site, children between the ages of 11 and 18, sometimes even kids as young as 5, were found to be involved in activities like manual sorting, burning and manual dismantling of e-waste. Even girls between the ages of 9 and 12 were found to be working as scavengers.
  • The ILO report also states that in Guiyu, China’s electronic junk capital, an estimated 80% of the children suffer from respiratory diseases and high concentrations of lead in their blood.

Effects of E-waste on Children

Since children are still in their developing stages they are more susceptible to threats posed by crude e-waste processing activities, and may suffer from permanent disabilities, asthma, psychological and neurological damages and may even affect bone development. Here is a look at how toxins in electronic junk affect children:

  • Exposure to lead is particularly severe for children and can result in damage to the brain and nervous system and may result in lifelong behavioral, developmental, and learning problems
  • Chromium can cause severe allergic reactions, even in small concentrations
  • Accumulation of Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs) is believed to cause an increased risk of cancer in the digestive and lymph systems
  • Maternal exposure to cadmium is associated with low birth weight and an increase of spontaneous abortion
  • Exposure to toxins in electronic waste also poses serious health risks to babies who are still in the womb, and may even adversely affect mother’s milk

These facts and figures make it imperative that necessary action be taken to curb the effects e-waste is having on future generations. While electronics and technology have made our lives easier, we cannot just let our e-waste choke out our children.

E-waste & Children: What can We Do?
The solution to the e-waste problem is to recognize regional and local contexts along with social implications of the issue. Simply banning the export of electronic junk from developed countries to developing nations is not the solution, since domestic generation constitutes a major proportion of electronic waste in all countries. What is needed is an end to end solution for electronic waste management and higher levels of consumer awareness regarding the hazards of e-scrap and how it affects children. Stricter regulations on usage of child labour in the recycling sector, stricter environmental regulations and effective monitoring of compliance is essential to curb such practices.
This is where companies like Attero are making a difference – from curbing improper disposal of electronic waste in the informal sector, which is responsible for employing child labour to raising awareness. A NASA recognized technology innovator and India’s largest electronic asset management company, Attero has been working to develop a sustainable solution to address these issues. The company has launched a two pronged approach – the first, leveraging technology to develop an eco-friendly recycling process for electronics and the second, raising public awareness about hazards associated with electronic junk and establishing a consumer e-waste take back model. In this respect, the organization has developed disruptive technology to recycle electronic junk in an environmentally responsible manner by setting up multiple low cost non hazardous recycling facilities. This solution offers a viable option for emerging economies like India, where most of the world’s e-scrap ends up as opposed to setting up multimillion dollar high cost, high capacity smelting facilities.

The company has also launched the Clean e-India Initiative in partnership with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a World Bank entity, with the aim to raise public awareness about e-waste. As part of the initiative, Attero will also be working with all stakeholders involved in the electronics lifecycle, including the informal sector to set up an effective consumer take back program. The company will be providing training and technical knowledge to workers from the informal recycling sector to promote adoption of eco-friendly recycling techniques.