Humankind’s insatiable demand for electronic devices is creating the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a growing global problem as technology develops. Consumers toss last year’s smartwatches and cell phones for the latest model each year. While some people turn their old devices in for recycling, many keep them stockpiled in a junk drawer or toss them out to go to a landfill. According to The International Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum, about 16 billion phones are owned worldwide, and over 5 billion are expected to become e-waste this year. The United Nations calls it a tsunami of e-waste.
Phones rank no. 4 in small electronic things that are hoarded or kept despite being unused or broken. Even though many valuable resources can be recycled from old phones, including gold, copper, silver and palladium, and that’s just from phones. LED lamps are among the top items to be trashed, and washing machines and tossed white appliances are the most significant amount of e-waste by weight.
Global E-waste Flows
The numbers are astounding; 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced each year and left unchecked; this could more than double to 120 million tonnes by 2050. While more electronic devices are part of the problem, they also can be a big part of the solution. A more digital and connected world will help us accelerate progress toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), offering unprecedented opportunities for emerging economies. Extending the life of electronic products and re-using electrical components brings an even more significant economic benefit, as working devices are worth more than the materials they contain. A circular electronics system – where resources are not extracted, used and wasted but re-used in countless ways – creates decent, sustainable jobs and retains more value in the industry. By harvesting this valuable resource, we will generate substantially fewer CO2 emissions when compared to mining the earth’s crust for raw minerals.
The stream of screens, cables, chips and motherboards is fuelled by our overconsumption culture and love of devices, many of which are connected to the internet. They now outnumber humans and are projected to grow to 10.9 billion by 2100, reflecting plummeting costs and rising demand. The problem continues to worsen as only 20% of global e-waste is formally recycled. The remaining 80% is often incinerated or dumped in landfill. Thousands of tonnes also find their way around the world to be pulled apart by hand or burned in countries in the Global South. This crude form of urban mining impacts people’s well-being and creates pollution. A study done by The Lancet found that people exposed to e-waste had significantly elevated levels of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants.
Circular Model for E-Waste
The solutions are already known; the challenge is effectively putting them into practice. By implementing improved e-waste management techniques and green standards, this concern can begin to wane. With the development of a stronger sustainable sector that produces less trash and in which our devices are both reused and recycled creatively through working together on a global scale, we will start to see progress towards these goals. This development can also opens new avenues for employment, commerce, economic activity, and education.
An additional consideration is to dematerialize the electronics sector. One approach might be the development of business models for devices-as-a-service. This model is a development of the present leasing methods, which enable customers to acquire cutting-edge technology without incurring significant upfront fees. New ownership models give the maker an incentive to guarantee that all resources are utilized effectively during the life span of a device.
The current linear “take, make and dispose of” approach must be changed as a first step toward the future circular economy we need to see. However, this calls for audacious solutions, knowledge, rewards, and regulations. The circular economy will require the cooperation of business leaders, financiers, academics, labour union leaders, and legislators. The image above includes strategies to formalize and empower unorganized e-waste workers, innovative business and reverse supply chain models, circular designs, safety for e-waste collectors, and techniques to gather e-waste safely. Now is the time to act. E-waste is a valuable resource that we are only now beginning to fully appreciate.
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