Frank Wania: We need to be held responsible for dealing with the waste we generate

April 18, 2022 by Don Campbell

People in mainland China and the Global South suffer the brunt of emissions of toxic chemicals from consumer goods used in more-developed countries, according to a new study. 

Researchers, including Frank Wania and Kate Tong of the University of Toronto Scarborough, say “core regions” in Europe, North America and parts of Asia have offloaded  polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) emissions to less developed parts of the world.

Exposure to PBDEs, a group of chemical fire retardants commonly associated with the disposal of electronic waste, is likely to cause thyroid problems, neurodevelopmental deficits and cancer.

“We should be held responsible for dealing with the waste generated by our society,” says Wania, a professor in the department of chemistry at the downtown campus and the department of physical and environmental sciences at U of T Scarborough, who was an author of the study published this month in Environmental Research Letters.

“It’s unethical to send our waste to developing countries or less wealthy parts of the world. If we rely on these chemicals for our products, then we should be responsible for disposing of them,” he added.

PBDE emissions are highest in areas of China, India, Bangladesh and Western Africa, the researchers say. Emissions take place mostly while these products are being recycled, often done in small backyard workshops with minimal safety standards. Wania says some emissions happen during the manufacture and use of consumer goods, but the vast majority occur at the end of a product's life cycle.

Emissions in China from 2000 to 2020 were approximately 300 tonnes, with about half of that linked to imported e-waste. By comparison, PBDE emissions in Europe during that time were only about 5.5 tonnes, with more than 100 tonnes offloaded to other parts of the world.

Studies show that exposure to PBDEs are likely to cause serious negative health consequences in animals and humans. While there’s a global restriction on new products containing the chemicals, existing consumer products will be used and recycled over decades.

While the researchers focused on PBDEs, Wania notes there are many other chemicals in consumer products that can create harmful emissions during disposal.

“We cannot assume that what we found for these chemicals applies equally to other chemicals, but this research shows this type of analysis can be done and it’s conceivable it takes place for other chemicals as well,” he says.

Li Li, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno and one of the study’s authors, says that China used to import about 70 per cent of the world’s traded e-waste, but that will likely change after recent regulations banning the practice.

Some areas in China have become known as e-waste recycling communities. The operations are hazardous for workers, who must manually separate products to salvage valuable materials such as gold, tungsten, cobalt and other precious metals.

“It’s dangerous work,” says Wania, adding that these operations might start to shift more to Western Africa and developing regions of Asia due to the new restrictions in China.

The research also highlights how a connected global economy means countries are trading not only products and chemicals, but waste. “This is an environmental justice issue because the environmental burden of making and disposing of a product is not fully experienced by those who benefit from using the product,” Wania says.

The point of the study is not to be alarmist about the chemicals found in consumer products, Wania adds. PBDEs serve a purpose and many products simply wouldn’t exist or function well without them, he explains, adding that many are safe if handled and disposed of properly.

“Some chemicals are safer than others, and it’s our job to figure out which ones we should be worried about, especially in how they are disposed of,” he says.   

If these products were disposed of in developed countries, Wania adds, overall emissions of these chemicals would be lower because of stricter health and safety regulations.  

“Exporting this waste not only means we shift the emissions to poorer parts of the world, but we also increase overall emissions because the regulatory environment isn’t as strong.”