E-Waste Emissions Jump 53 Percent Between 2014 and 2020

The proliferation of electronic devices has contributed to the accelerated surge of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in e-waste, according to a new study in Circular Economy.

E-waste GHG emissions rose 53 percent between 2014 and 2020. Researchers anticipate e-waste will annually generate 852 million metric tons of CO2 compounds by 2030. 

“Increasing the useful lifespan expectancy of electronic devices by 50%–100% can mitigate up to half of the total GHG emissions,” the study’s authors stated. “Such outcomes will require coordination of eco-design and source reduction, repair, refurbishment, and reuse. These strategies can be a key to efforts towards climate neutrality for the electronics industry, which is currently among the top eight sectors accounting for more than 50% of the global carbon footprint.”

The study  examined not only the e-waste emissions generation but the environmental ramifications of toxic waste management following disposal of devices.

“Toxic materials are inevitable components of new electronic products and render e-waste management hazardous, thereby causing major health problems for informal waste management laborers including women and children in countries where most (∼83 percent) of obsolete electronics are informally dismantled,” it noted, referencing a World Health Organization document.

The current global rate of e-waste recycling stands at 17.4 percent, with Europe and the Americas responsible for the majority of waste generated.The study noted that Europe’s recycling rate stands above other countries at 42.5 percent, following by Asia at 11.7 percent and the Americas at 9.4 percent. 

Equipment lifespan has deteriorated as technological advancements have arrived, which has directly contributed to the rapid generation of e-waste. Researchers found that between 2013 and 2020, “the useful lifespan of average electronic devices such as desktops, laptops, and smartphones decreased by 41%, 22%, and 30%, respectively.”

Measures to expand repair, reuse and recycle for electronic waste are essential for the establishment of a circular economy framework

“However, extending the useful lifespan of electronic products may stifle access to innovative technology, and the concomitant reduction in e-waste generation may not directly lead to a reduction in exposure of workers to hazardous components of e-waste or the levels of precious or critical materials such as gold which attracts the postconsumer labor market,” the study’s authors said.

With the development of devices with longer lifespans, researchers estimated that total cumulative GHG emissions savings from 2021 to 2030 would be between “2.5 billion to 3.7 billion tons of CO2e from source reduction depending upon the product useful lifespan extensions of 50%–100% of e-waste generated by ICT devices.”

Right-to-repair regulatory framework would require electronics manufacturers to develop devices that consumers could fix on their own or at local repair shops. Piecemeal legislation has emerged from the European Commission and the UK that would require companies to provide repair manuals and make spare parts available for washing machines and washer-dryers, fridges, dishwashers and televisions. While most states in the U.S. have introduced their own right-to-repair legislation, only Massachusetts has passed a law as of 2013 that focuses on vehicle manufacturers.

The study’s authors concluded that a global framework and regulatory body must be established to hit environmental targets for e-waste.

“The fragmentation of right-to-repair policies and guidelines for electronics at the national and regional levels have obvious limitations in the context of the global scope of electronics manufacturing, international trade in new and used electronic products, and the transboundary movement of e-waste.” the authors stated. “A global forum to develop internationally applicable guidelines is essential, and these can be guided by considering the strengths and weaknesses of the existing frameworks.”

 Oladele Ogunseitan, Ph.D. spearheaded the research along with co-author Narendra Singh. 

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