According to UN figures published at the end of last year, the amount of electronic waste created across the world reached an annual high of 43 million tons with only 8.6 million of this recycled. By 2121, this is predicted to rise to a staggering 55.2 million tons. As more technology is introduced to the market, the more consumers will opt to upgrade their electronics, which will cause global e-waste amounts to skyrocket. However, the old adage “think global, act local” certainly applies to e-waste and as such, there are ways that individuals, local governments and tech companies can do to make the effort to stem the tide of e-waste.
Unfortunately, much of the developed world’s e-waste is still being shipped to developing countries, with 85% being sent to the poorest parts of Africa. The twenty-acre Agbogbloshie dump in central Accra, Ghana, is so well known that Smithsonian magazine has perversely referred to it as “iconic” in one expose. These digital wastelands and dumping grounds are filled with hazardous chemicals due to many electronics that have been dumped with volatile batteries still contained in the device with adhesive materials. In fact, wired attributes a sizable portion of the e-waste crisis to the increasingly slimline design of many electronic goods, rendering them harder for people to dismantle and recycle components effectively.
Despite 66% of the world’s nations having formal laws around WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) disposal, only 41 countries currently collate computer recycling data. Clearly there is a lot of work that needs to be done to curb wastage.
The first effort that can help decrease e-waste amounts is to increase awareness of the value of raw materials in electronics. If you were to ask the average smartphone user, what they believe is contained within their mobile devices, they may answer with ‘a chip/computer parts/motherboard/etc.’ – not knowing that their mobile device also contains a valuable amount of precious metals such as gold, silver and copper. Therefore, the general public (a majority of which are smartphone users) needs to be made aware of the value of their devices in order to urge them to consider responsible and safe recycling options.
One of the computer sectors major players is already taking steps to address the waste inherent in WEEE disposal. Dell announced the launch of a pilot scheme at the start of this year, which would see gold from old motherboards recycled through a process with a 99% lower environmental impact than traditional methods. This gold will then be used in future Dell products, as well as a limited jewelry line, “The Circular Collection” (named for the circular economy Dell is adopting).
Another factor that can be done to decrease e-waste amounts is to impose fines on the information recycling sectors. Perhaps one of the biggest issues surrounding e-waste disposal has been the creation of an informal recycling sector for WEEE products, which is clearly evident by e-waste being sent to other countries – a process deemed illegal under the UN’s Basel Convention. In 2016, one non-profit added secret GPS trackers to 200 waste electronic items, and Fast Company reported that 31 percent of them had ended up oversees to dumps like Agbogbloshie.
This informal e-waste recycling is particularly dangerous because of the toxins produced during the recovery and recycling operations. There are catastrophic emissions created when local communities that flock to these digital dumps extract copper wiring by burning the outer layer of plastic materials. Furthermore, not only can toxic gases be released but water supplies can be contaminated from the cyanide and nitric acid that is used to extract gold from circuit boards. Informal e-waste recycling is particularly dangerous because of the toxins produced when recovering the recyclable parts of electronics. However, it’s important to note that in a PC World’s report, only eight percent of American e-scrap processing plants follow proper e-waste disposal guidelines.
Considering the various environmental impact stemming from the information recycling sector, governments need to appropriately deal with the formal ways in which waste electronics are dealt with domestically. This can be done by reducing the heavy taxes on companies who manage their hazardous e-waste appropriately, and generally stricter internal enforcement on how the valuable materials within e-waste is extracted.
The third step individuals, governments and tech companies can take are to make planned obsolescence obsolete. The BBC notes that after lightbulbs entered the mass market, the decision was made to “artificially reduce [their] lifetimes” in order to encourage further purchases; this may well be the first example of planned obsolescence in the electronics sector. More recently, at the tail-end of last year, Apple made an announcement which seemed to give credence to a long-running conspiracy theory: That the iPhone and other i-Products are designed with a fixed end-date. Apple claimed that this was to prevent their lithium batteries from leaking and damaging other components, however a preliminary investigation has already begun in France over how true Apple’s statement is.
While the business model makes sense from an economic standpoint, it is an environmental nightmare; as more electronics are purchased in anticipation of old machines’ obsolescence, more (perfectly fine) devices are being jettisoned, and more often than not, in an unsustainable manner. The head of the sustainable cycles programme at the United Nations University noted his wish that these tech companies would “push in the direction to improve repairability” as opposed to needing to replace electronics on a near-annual basis.
Perhaps the lawsuit against Apple will lead to new legislation to tackle this; until then, companies should think beyond the bottom line and tailor their designs and development to the circular economy. This will benefit not just the environment, but their customers as well.