Picture used for illustrative purpose.
The demand for electronic devices is practically unquenchable at this moment. It is challenging to fathom modern life without them. New scientific and technological advancements have made it possible for these electronic devices to evolve alongside our own. As a result, their manufacturing rate has increased, and their lifespan has shortened, resulting in a higher disposal rate. Hence, we constantly discard and replace our electronic devices, generating a waste stream known as “e-waste.”
As defined by the step initiative, e-waste refers to all electrical and electronic equipment and its components that have been discarded without the owner’s intention to reuse them.
According to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020, about 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste were generated worldwide in 2019, an increase of 21% from 2014, making it a worrying trend for policy and decision-makers worldwide.
E-waste is inevitable, yet it is a problem due to its rapid growth, which makes it challenging to manage in different regions of the world, and its repercussions on the environment, health, and the economy.
The UN’s Global E-Waste Monitor projects that global e-waste will reach 74.7 Mt by 2030 and might reach 110 Mt by 2050 if the current trend continues.
Furthermore, to date, most of the generated e-waste is not yet part of a sustainable reprocessing cycle, meaning that it is still not treated or recycled even if it has the potential to be collected for reuse or treatment.
For example, in 2019, just 17.4% of e-waste was collected and recycled, leaving the rest of the e-recoverable waste’s components, including gold, silver, copper, platinum, and other high-value materials, for disposal in landfills or incineration. According to the World Economic Forum, the value of disposed or burned materials amounts to $62.5 billion, three times the yearly output of the world’s silver mines. In 2019, the value of our rising pile of global e-waste exceeded the annual GDP of 120 countries.
Moreover, e-waste typically contains a variety of toxins, including mercury, lead, cadmium, polybrominated flame retardants, barium, and lithium. Consequently, when most of the e-waste is dumped in landfills or incinerated, they pose an additional problem, especially if they are discarded irresponsibly. They pose a threat to the environment, polluting habitats, and harming people and wildlife. For instance, brain, heart, liver, kidney, and skeletal system dysfunction have been linked to e-waste environmental damage in large animals and people. Also, e-waste, if incinerated, can pollute the air, causing chronic respiratory ailments. They can also lead to groundwater contamination; once the heavy metals of e-waste have permeated the soil far enough, they can enter rivers, streams, and lakes.
Separately, while additional e-waste contributes to the problem, it can also play a significant role in the solution. It can provide a business opportunity to extract common, valuable, and essential raw resources. Collecting this precious resource will generate significantly fewer CO2 emissions than extracting minerals from the earth’s crust.
To realize the opportunities surrounding e-waste, it is imperative that we adopt a more circular perspective in the e-waste management sector as soon as possible, beginning with the introduction of better e-waste management strategies and green standards that can help address the growing e-waste problem.
Additionally, we may establish a sustainable sector that generates less waste and in which our equipment is recycled and repurposed in creative ways. This will require substantial investment by governments, industry, and individuals in technology and education to transform public attitudes towards e-waste disposal.
Forming e-waste-specific laws and guaranteeing its multidimensional and multiscale adoption by the public and private sectors in all countries is yet another approach to addressing this issue.
Lastly, governments might also play another role by encouraging e-waste recycling and disposal start-ups by giving the appropriate financial assistance and technical direction.