At the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), coal, methane and CO2 took the spotlight. Yet there was a deafening silence around the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world—technology. In 2019 alone, the world generated 53.6 million tons of waste, which is approximately 16 pounds per person.
That same year, only 17 percent of that electronic waste got recycled. The rest of it was shipped out of sight to a landfill or sent offshores, often in the developing world, where mercury, arsenic and lithium are left to seep into the ground and data-bearing devices with sensitive information can be found and exploited.
Cardboard and plastic consumer recycling has become so mainstream that ignoring recycling bins seems unthinkable. However, our electronic waste, consisting of precious metals, dangerous chemicals and sensitive data, continues to find its way to the trash each time new technology enhancements are introduced.
It’s time we realized that our trash bins are not a magical portal to the abyss. That’s why 2022 should be the year that technology recycling goes mainstream. In fact, as we continue to deplete natural resources and more and more privacy breaches take place and data protection laws are enacted, 2022 not only should be the year technology recycling goes mainstream, it needs to be.
On Christmas Day all around our planet, millions of phones, tablets and laptops are unwrapped. Each year the total amount of electronic equipment grows by about 2.5 million tons. By 2030, the total amount of electronic waste is set to double yet again. It seems obvious that this growing waste stream should be recycled, yet only 5 percent of people say they would recycle their devices.
When simply thrown away, these discarded items are left to be digested by our ecosystem. While the Earth is incredibly efficient at decomposing organic materials like dead animals, fallen trees and food scraps, it simply cannot naturally absorb the highly-processed metals and manufactured compounds necessary in today’s technology.
Our smartphones contain dangerous chemicals such as mercury, lead and even arsenic. These toxic substances dissolve into a sludge at the bottom of landfills, which then seep into the wider ecosystem. People and businesses need to start viewing e-waste as a form of hazardous waste so that it is properly disposed of and paid for … for the sake of our planet.
One egg from a free-range chicken in Ghana’s Agbogbloshie, one of the world’s largest e-waste site, was found to have chlorinated dioxins at a level 220 times higher than the limit set by the European Food Safety Authority. If you wouldn’t bury your old laptops in your own backyard, you shouldn’t bury them in someone else’s.
Old electronics also contain glass, steel, copper, plastic, aluminum, gold, silver and palladium, all of which are finite resources that should be recycled. Yet too many don’t. In 2018, just from smartphones alone, 320 tons of gold and 7,200 tons of silver were discarded.
Another solution lies with the advancement of a circular economy. Manufacturers should be better incentivized to make the repair, reuse and recycling of hardware profitable. With the material value of the world’s e-waste at $62.5 billion, more than the GDP of most countries, systems need to be put consistently in place to future-proof manufacturers’ supply chains, ending concerns about the long-term availability of raw materials. A global mindset shift from a linear to circular economy for technology is critical.
Today, whenever you buy a new phone, many manufacturers provide a discount if you trade in your old device. Many companies offer money for second-hand tech including manufacturers and retailers alike. We simply must meet innovation with innovation and continue to be willing to harness technology to bring solutions so we can keep up with the innovations taking place at the other end of the device food chain and establish a circular economy that is a win-win for everyone.
In 2019, the amount of e-waste had increased by 21 percent from 2014. Clearly this upward trend must stop. In 2020, America threw away 25 percent more trash during Christmas than at any other time of the year. Despite the grave environmental and data security dangers of simply discarding e-waste not making headlines, action is being taken to make a change. However, education remains the most important hurdle to overcome.
COP26 was proof that the world is prepared to tackle its carbon emissions, plastic and fossil fuels. It was also evident that e-waste continues to slip under the radar. As technology is booming, so is the amount of electronic waste. That’s why it’s time to make recycling an old smartphone as easy and as socially expected as recycling Christmas wrapping paper.
John Shegerian is the chairman and CEO of ERI, the largest cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction and electronic waste recycling company in the United States.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.