We’re a society that loves our tech. Lately, it’s spending oodles of cash to upgrade to the next generation of 5G devices, with their promises of speed and efficiency. What we rarely consider as we plan our upgrades is their environmental cost — consumption inevitably creates waste. Tech’s electronic waste (e-waste) problems are extensive, and there’s a consumer knowledge gap as well that makes tackling the e-waste problem tricky.
The Effects of E-Waste
Personal technology is pervasive in our lives. We think of these items as primarily computers and phones, but devices such as smart watches, digital children’s toys, household devices, cars, and more all include internet connectivity and data bearing capabilities.
Since 2018, the number of tech consumers in Europe and North America who own 3 or more devices has continually risen, with similar increases worldwide. Also, since 2018, there’s been a 56% increase of people who own 6 or more devices.
When we replace existing tech products with newer versions, the former item needs to go. We upgrade for a variety of reasons — staying current with our peers, intersections with other technologies, work requirements — and, when we switch up, we produce a lot of e-waste over the long term.
Today 31% of consumers either throw away old electronics with their household garbage or mix them in with other recyclables like metal and plastic. It’s estimated that by 2030 we’ll produce 74 million tons of e-waste every year.
Disposing of E-Waste
Electronic devices are made of a complex mix of materials that include gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, lithium, cobalt, and other valuable elements.
Electronic devices also comprise toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium; and beryllium; polluting PVC plastic; and, hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants, which can harm human health and the environment. E-waste accounts for only 2% of debris in landfills but contributes two-thirds of heavy metal toxins, making it one of the main contributors to toxic leaching. These metals break down in the soil, emitting dangerous gases harmful to humans and the environment.
Recycling e-waste is not always easy. Unlike regular recycling, it often requires special services. One such company is ERI, which processes million pounds of electronic waste annually. Pallets overflow with smartphones and tablets and other unloved personal technology devices. Workers remove dangerous components like lithium-ion batteries and other elements. A constantly moving conveyor belt feeds debris into a machine that shreds them into piles of copper, aluminum, and steel.
Among other services, ERI offers an end-to-end program to manage the complete disposition of retired electronic & IT assets, providing data destruction, maximizing asset value recovery, minimizing penalty charges and fines, ensuring complete regulatory compliance, and meeting or surpassing corporate risk management requirements.
This is not the era in which many of us were born, in which owning one technology device was avante garde.
We live in an era of planned obsolescence, so that the iPhone we buy today fails to meet our lifestyle needs within just a few years. Most smartphone batteries can’t be easily replaced when they stop holding a charge, new laptops don’t accept old cables, and software companies push upgrades that won’t run on old devices.
Upgrades to 5G wireless technology are resulting in particularly dramatic increases in e-waste, as millions of smartphones, modems, and other gadgets incompatible with 5G networks are made obsolete. “Our products today don’t last as long as they used to, and it’s a strategy by manufacturers to force us into shorter and shorter upgrade cycles,” Kyle Wiens, the founder of iFixit, told Time.
Holding Companies Accountable
Lawmakers in parts of Europe and Canada and in some US states have passed Extended Producer Responsibility laws, which require manufacturers to establish and fund systems to recycle or collect obsolete products. It’s a concept where manufacturers and importers of products should bear a significant degree of responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products throughout the product life-cycle, including upstream impacts inherent in the selection of materials for the products, impacts from manufacturers’ production process itself, and downstream impacts from the use and disposal of the products. Producers accept their responsibility when designing their products to minimize life-cycle environmental impacts and when accepting legal, physical, or socio-economic responsibility for environmental impacts that cannot be eliminated by design.
There are currently 25 states and the District of Columbia that have passed legislation related to electronics recycling. Several more states have proposed legislation in the past or are considering such legislation. All states except California and Utah use the Producer Responsibility approach, whereby the manufacturers pay for the costs of recycling. Promoting such accountability is The Product Stewardship Institute, a policy advocate and consulting nonprofit that powers the emerging circular economy to ensure products are responsibly managed from design to end of life.
Solutions to Reduce E-Waste
For a very long time, the US or other western countries shifted e-waste abroad. It was a way of adhering to the “out of sight, out of mind” adage. However, relocating e-waste is no solution; it’s transferring a problem instead of creating a sustainable solution.
How can we reduce e-waste?
- Device designers can invest in R&D that will produce stronger recycled materials to reduce their own e-waste output. They can incorporate fewer toxic materials. Both would appeal to eco-aware consumers.
- Manufacturers can put more emphasis on reclaiming and reusing the materials from discarded products and waste—a process called urban mining— which makes economic and environmental sense.
- Companies can rethink their approach to repairing old devices. A quarter of consumers say they first try to repair products.
- Employers can make sure the tech devices they supply meet employee needs in the first place, so employees don’t have to purchase their own specialty device.
- Consumers can donate older products to local schools or charities and see if any vulnerable populations need equipment. Such recycling is really important instead of careless landfill disposal.
Companies that make a philosophical decision to extend product longevity while retaining profit margins must create a culture shift for today’s consumers. It will cost more money, which will likely be passed along to consumers.
For example, proper or formal e-waste recycling is complicated. It usually involves disassembling the electronics, separating and categorizing the contents by material, and cleaning them. Items are then shredded mechanically for further sorting with advanced separation technologies.
One example of such a process is Apple’s Daisy, a smartphone-recycling robot that can take apart 200 iPhones every hour. Apple says it diverted 48,000 metric tons of electronic waste from landfills in 2018 when Daisy was introduced.
Daisy is a starting place for the million tons of e-waste generated globally.
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