Expert Workshop on Changing Global E-waste Cycle Brings Together Leaders from Around the World

Group photo during the e-waste meetingOn April 25 and 26, 2018, the University of Michigan School of Public Health brought together nearly 50 experts from around the world to discuss solutions to the public health challenges caused by electronic waste—or e-waste—which refers to electronic devices such as cell phones, computers, and household appliances that are thrown away or recycled. Globally, more than 40 million tons of e-waste are generated every year.

E-waste from the US and Europe often ends up in China, Africa and South Asia. E-waste is made up of a vast assortment of materials, some of which are quite valuable—such as copper, silver, gold and platinum. People in some of the poorest areas in those regions often recycle the e-waste because of the income potential this work presents. But along with the financial benefits come serious health risks.

"In many areas informal workers recycle e-waste in their homes using rudimentary tools, and burn what they can’t manually dismantle," says Richard Neitzel, associate professor and associate chair of environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health. Neitzel, who organized the summit, has traveled the world researching the health implications of e-waste. "While they recover valuable materials, they also release a lot of toxic substances in the process, and can end up contaminating themselves, the environment, and even their food supply. And informal workers rarely have access to proper safety equipment or appropriate tools."

Because e-waste processing operations are a much-needed financial driver for these workers and their communities, Neitzel and his collaborators work to make them safer and ensure that metal exposures aren’t putting workers, their families or their communities at risk.

Building Connections to Foster Collaboration

E-waste workerThe e-waste meeting involved faculty from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, College of Engineering and Ford School of Public Policy, as well as other researchers, industry leaders and representatives from the United Nations, 10 universities, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses from around the globe.

“The problem of e-waste is incredibly complex, and developing solutions requires diverse perspectives and expertise. We didn’t want this summit to be just for academics or just for business people,” says Neitzel. “We wanted to bring people together from different countries, different aspects of the recycling process, and different environmental, social, and cultural contexts. Most of the people in the room had not met in person before. In fact, one of our primary goals was to build connections to foster future collaboration.”

During the two-day summit, which was funded by the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute and the School of Public Health, the group broke into interdisciplinary teams to explore five broad topics:

  • Policies to improve e-waste worker and community health and the role of government in e-waste

  • E-waste worker education

  • Healthy and safe recycling communities and households

  • Producer responsibility for discarded electronics

  • Optimized design processes and tools for recycling

Each group, guided by a facilitator from the School of Public Health’s Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship program, came up with a specific problem within their topic area, potential solutions, and next steps. The policy group, for example, explored the idea of designing an ideal workplace model that could be modified and used at the local level to inform policy makers. Among other things, their model would recommend separating the work area from the living area and having first aid equipment and a fire extinguisher available in case of an accident.

“It’s a low-cost, simple solution, but one that could have a real impact,” says Aubrey Langeland, a PhD candidate who works with Neitzel on e-waste worker safety research in Thailand and Chile and was one of 10 students invited to participate in the summit. “What I realized at this meeting was that a lot of people are doing the same work and not communicating about it. Opening those lines of communication can help advance the science quite a bit.”

A Vision for a Healthier Future

“Professor Neitzel has had this vision for years—it was great to see it come to fruition,” says Langeland. “Everyone was very grateful to him and proud of what we accomplished in two short days. A lot of people traveled here not knowing what to expect and now they are excited to begin tackling the next steps.”

Keeping that momentum going is going to be key, Neitzel says: “Ultimately, the goal is for these people to continue to collaborate and implement the strategies we developed during these two days together in Ann Arbor. I’m looking forward to seeing where this leads.”