Where does all our e-waste go? Most of us try to avoid thinking about where our waste ends up because we all know that if it isn’t recycled, it’s burnt (to produce harmful gasses into the air) or dumped in a landfill somewhere that we hope we will never have to see. There is a sad truth to the end of life of our electronics, a truth that the world needs to know, embrace and change.
Imagine having to face, touch and handle this waste, every day of your youth, and perhaps, adulthood. Every day of your life, your vision is filled with mountains of scrap computers and home appliances, printed circuit boards and tangled wires– Miles and miles of old electronics. Imagine having to raise your children to scavenge through heaps of trash for precious metals, without any protection; and while they are digging through dangerous mountains of electronic waste for parts to exchange for a living, there are other scavengers around, burning wires and plastic, producing incredibly toxic gas that your children inevitably have to inhale. It is no longer a matter of choice anymore. For many people around the world, this is a reality. Digging through e-waste dangerously while inhaling volumes of toxic gas is a way of life, as much of an oxymoron it seems.
image source: greenpeace.org
Above is an image of somebody’s child. She is not wearing any gloves, her hands dirtied from digging through dumped electronics. There may be some sharp edges here and there, and maybe some loose screws, but that won’t stop her tiny hands from digging, because whatever precious metals she may find will ultimately help to feed her family. At home here in Singapore, some of us won’t even allow our children near certain home appliances– some not even a pair of scissors. In E-Waste processing towns such as Guiyu, in Guangdong, China, health and safety are sacrificed in exchange for a livelihood.
The Unseen Value in E-Waste
Some of us in the first world reading this article using our smartphones may be wondering, but what value could there be in collecting old electronics? Why go through such great lengths to dig for resources in e-waste dumps? Dumped electronics with just a few broken parts may not be functioning anymore, but there is another form of value in this waste. Within most electronics, are printed circuit boards rich and embedded with metals such as iron. aluminium, and sometimes even gold. To extract the metal is an extremely dangerous process. The plastic boards have to be cooked and burnt to extract metals such as copper and aluminium. To liberate gold, some may even have to dip the boards into acid baths. The metals, when extracted can then be sold.
Especially with the amount of E-Waste dumped in Guiyu, the little components of gold and other precious metals could amount to kilos and kilos, making this toxic metal scavenging industry a multi-billion dollar one. The amount of gold that has yet to be found can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
Guiyu China used to be a rice farming village. Now, the soil is far too contaminated for grass to even thrive. Guiyu is officially the largest E-Waste dumping site in China, and quite possibly, the world. Here, electronic waste from countries around South East Asia, and even from within China are being imported into Guiyu to be processed. In the act of extracting and liberating precious metals from printed circuit boards and plastics, heavy metals such as chromium, lead and tin seep deep into the soil, contaminating the ground water. So much so that the water in Guiyu has 2,400 times the World Health Organization’s threshold for lead content. Water is so polluted in Guiyu, clean water has to be exported in from other places.
Lead flows through the blood of the children in Guiyu, as a result of the pollution. Children under the age of 10 are especially susceptible to lead poisoning, which is a slow and painful process towards death. Lead poisoning may lead to fatal and irreversible damage on the still developing brains of children. Lead poisoning may also have other adverse effects such as nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss, and the damage can even lead up to children developing mental disorders and learning disabilities.
This is the great consequence of improper disposal of e-waste. **Illegal** disposal of e-waste. The capitalistic industry’s lack of concern for the environment coupled with humankind’s own carelessness has created this dystopian reality of an e-waste nightnare. Just so you know, Guiyu is just one of tens of thousands of E-waste processing villages. We don’t think much before we mass produce and dump. We don’t think much at all.
information compiled from the following websites
Most of us now, have our own personal devices. Each of us, more than one. A phone, a tablet, and a PC/Notebook, to conduct our personal affairs. Most of the time, affairs dealing with sensitive and important information are conducted on our PCs. Our online shopping, financial transactions… Sometimes, we use our PCs to store personal information such as scans of our passports, identity cards and other sensitive documents. Over the years, we upgrade to newer and more advanced models, dumping or reselling our old ones and buying new computers. In the reselling process, before reselling, we’d do a simple memory wipe to ensure all our sensitive data is cleaned away, and our computers reformatted. After that, we happily resell our computers, our worries washed away by the illusion that our data has been completely erased and unrecoverable.
This is a terrible and misinformed idea that many people in the world hold today.
Even though we’ve moved our documents and pictures into the recycling bin, the data still exists on our hard drives. Until that data is overwritten with new data, it will continue to exist and remain recoverable by people who have the means and intentions. Yes, somebody out there who buys your used laptop can still extract private information from your HDD, and use it with malicious intent. Especially since the world is now moving most of its activities online, such as shopping, booking of flights, and other operations, there will be an increase in concentration of our personal information on our computers and devices.
Multiple experiments conducted by data forensics companies and organizations have proved this to be a scary truth: Unknowingly, people are giving up bytes and bytes of their personal information and photos, social security numbers and other personally identifiable data, as they are oblivious to how HDDs and data sanitation works.
Blancco Technology Group
Blancco Technology Group is a globally established organization that specializes in data sanitation and computer reuse for corporations and government organizations. In 2016, the company conducted an experiment that would reveal the shocking truth and dangers of improper data sanitation. For the experiment, the company bought 200 used computers from resale sites such as Craigslist and eBay. After that, their company conducted data recovery procedures to see how much personal information they could still recover from the resold PCs. Here is a breakdown
data extracted from PC World and scmagazineuk
Residual data on used hardware is a real issue that the common person may not be informed of. Another study was conducted by Which? a technology review magazine. They had bought computers and hard drives off auction sites such as eBay, and were able to recover over 20,000 deleted files on 8 different computers, some containing vital information such as bank details, mortgage applications, and personal information such as addresses. Clearly, right clicking and deleting files is beyond insufficient to properly sanitize and erase your personal information.
The problems with improper disposal and sanitation of hard drives not only plague consumers, but sometimes, firms as well. There is even a wiki site on major events and reports about the issues and violations that have arisen with improper data sanitation and resales of uncleaned HDDs. Without properly erasing your data via professional means, your personal information is ripe for the taking by hackers and people with malicious intent.
Securing your data
There are a number of ways that you are able to secure your data.
MacOS users can use FileVault which comes together with buying Apple computers. Windows users can use BitLocker which also comes together when buying Windows PCs. External third pary programs may also be used, such as TrueCrypt
- Complete destruction of your HDD
Consumers alternatively may seek data sanitation organizations with the proper equipment such as hard drive crushers or degaussers that will be able to securely and physically destroy all your data. Our company, Metalo International provides this service.
- Erasure Programs
Consumers can also seek for companies that specialize in data erasure without physically destroying the hard drive, so that you can resell your personal devices.
Over the past 50 years or so, human use of electronics has increased beyond what we ever imagined. Electronics have quickly made themselves a part of our daily lives, from house appliances, to personal communication devices… Electronics are everywhere and without them, we’d be handicapped. Another trend in this new information age, would be the acceleration in the development and improvement of electronics. In 2008, the go to phone was the Nokia N95, which had a D-Pad and a small keyboard, even an 8.5 megapixel camera. In the coming next few years, the N95 would be rendered obsolete, as phone companies begin research and development into a more intuitive interface– touchscreens.
Everything had changed so fast so soon, it is inevitable, the amount of e-waste and pollution as a result of these advancements. Now, the average person changes their phone every two years. We dispose of our appliances, only looking forward to a new frontier of faster and flashier devices, not looking back and realizing the amount of harm our waste does to the environment. Singapore, being one of the most richest and expensive first world countries today, is also a culprit in producing an excessive amount of electronic waste today.
Looking at electronic products, most components and parts can actually be recycled and reused again, as conductors and other precious minerals are metals which can be melted and recycled. So how are we still dumping away so much of our e-waste? The awareness of the harmful effects of e-waste has yet to become a norm.
Such was the case with carbon dioxide, the ozone layer and other environmental problems we never foresaw in the past when the industrial age first began. In spite of this, activists, scientists and people of great influence have seen the importance of environmental conservation, and their efforts have now made knowledge of pollution and global warming from fossil fuels is now general knowledge.
There is still much potential to be unlocked in the industry of recycling electronic waste, and much more work to be done to raise awareness of the catastrophic effects of e-waste pollution.