Electronic waste disposal first made the scene in the mid-1970s, in the wake of the digital revolution which had been ferociously gaining speed since the late 1950s. It’s no coincidence that it was the year 1970 when the Recycling Logo, we’ve all become accustomed to, was designed by G. Anderson.
We embraced technology as it revolutionized the way we lived, worked, and communicated. In the decades following man’s first landing on the Moon, the digital revolution flourished and transformed life on Earth in ways most of us had not imagined. Little did Neil Armstrong know when he said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The space race allowed American companies to dominate the digital revolution and transformation, for decades to come.
For decades we rushed to buy newer, slicker, faster models, whether it was phones, TVs, cars, household appliances, you name it, we bought it, and we’re still buying today, even when we don’t need to, or don’t want to.
Most electronic devices we’ve been purchasing, for the last 3 decades or so, were designed to be replaced with newer models. With repairs, no longer featured in the design, and consumers’ insatiable cravings for the latest trendy electronic gadgets, we’ve created a vicious and detrimental loop that’s difficult to break out of.
The United Nations University estimates that an alarming 45 million tonnes of computers, televisions, mobile phones, and other electronic goods are thrown away every year. An average cell phone user replaces their unit once every 18 months. This doesn’t factor in the amount of peripheral computer equipment that is also thrown into dumps around the world, most of which end up in landfills.
The UN University and International Telecommunication Union have estimated that the raw materials in e-waste are worth $62.5 billion annually. That exceeds the GDP of 123 countries.
We’ve come a long way since the Apollo landing on the moon. The flight computer, which the astronauts used to fly to the Moon, in both the command module and the lunar module, was the tiniest, fastest, most nimble, and most functional computer that had ever been created, at the time, and so it was that MIT and NASA catapulted the computer industry.
At that time though, NASA was pretty much the only major client for computer chips. Let’s compare that to 2021 when a total of 169 industries were hard hit by a global chip shortage, which is still ongoing. As the cost of key materials to produce microchips increases, in the midst of global supply chain disruptions, consumers are starting to feel the pinch. Prices of PCs and other IT devices are steadily on the rise. Car prices have also risen, as car manufacturers focus on building more expensive models to compensate for the lack of chips. The globe is going through a tech boom again, and suppliers simply can’t keep up.
We Can’t Afford Another Tech Boom Unless We Start Doing Things Differently
The metal industry is a multi-faceted reality, facing immense sustainability issues, with added concerns surrounding the depletion of technology metals. These metals are vital to the global economy since they are essential components in all high-tech electronic devices and cleantech applications, for domestic, commercial, industrial, and military use, worldwide.
Depletion of technology metals could contribute to ecological, economic, and social deficits, with far-reaching global consequences.
These metals are the dominant materials found in e-waste, representing approximately 60% of the total waste, comprising a multitude of items, such as household appliances, IT equipment, monitors, tools, medical devices, and much more. Data indicates that 82% of e-waste generated globally is not being recycled. As is, we can’t afford another Tech boom unless we start doing things differently.
What Happens To The 82% Of E-Waste Not Being Recycled?
82% of all e-waste, generated globally, is being informally recycled in developing countries.
Ninety-five percent of the e-waste in India is being recycled in the non-formal sector and only five percent of the e-waste volume is handled via formal units. In and around the metropolitan cities of India, there are over 3000 known units operating in the non-formal sector of e-waste recycling.
Informal recycling employs crude methods of recovery for valuable metals and poses risks to untrained workers, who are often children, due to the lack of infrastructure, weak enforcement of legislation, and no adequate precautions.
The National Commission For Protection of Child Rights in India recently reported that the segregation of hazardous e-waste is done by children as young as eight.
Children in Ghana have been documented, by Greenpeace, dismantling computers and TVs to recuperate the metals inside. They are at risk, working in poorly ventilated enclosed areas, without any protective equipment, and no regulations, while pollutants are being released into water sources and the land.
Populations at large, are at risk due to the contamination of their land and water. On the other hand, informal e-waste management, and recycling, in developing countries, have resulted in employment opportunities and satisfied the demand for affordable electronic devices.
Asia, Africa, India, and South America, according to a UN report, are the primary destinations for discarded electronic products via recycling programs.
The irony does not go unnoticed when one considers that the very regions that are stripped of the resources needed to manufacture electronic devices are exactly where the e-waste is eventually dumped.
There could be some light at the end of this dark tunnel, with companies such as E-rase your E-Waste which aims to provide solutions to informal and hazardous e-waste management in developing countries. Located in Delhi, the Catalytic Reaction Engineering Laboratory research group at the Chemical Engineering Department, led by Dr. KK Pant are researching and implementing ways to achieve target metal recovery and energy production through an eco-friendly process.
Dr. Pant’s team believes that this can be successfully implemented, on a large scale, so as to generate many jobs in the waste recycling industry, without posing risks to workers or the environment. The team has already set up a 10kg/h (Kilogram per hour) pyrolysis plant for E-waste recycling at IIT Delhi.
Is Recycling The Solution To E-Waste?
When e-waste is not recycled, chemicals such as lead, mercury, polyfluoroalkyl substances, brominated flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, and other persistent organic pollutants contaminate landfills, water supplies, and the land, so it stands to reason that e-waste management and recycling need to be improved on a global scale.
When we think of sustainability issues, recycling is the engine that we hope will propel us to a cleaner, more sustainable future. It’s been over 50 years since recycling became a household term, we should admit defeat, or at the very least realize that recycling alone won’t cut it.
The only way to navigate out of this mess is to look at the big picture. We are all part of the problem and as such, we all need to play our part in the grand scheme of creating a sustainable future.
Consumer Habits Need To Change And Big Tech Companies Need To Respond Accordingly
The laptop I’m using to write this has already started showing signs of extreme fatigue. Even with the battery charged at 100%, it turns itself off abruptly, if not powered by AC. It’s five years old and according to today’s standards, should have already been replaced.
Electronic components have their own life, and it’s normal for some of these to need replacing in time. The problem is that in many instances, laptops, for instance, are glued, or parts are soldered together, so that if one part breaks you’ll need to replace the entire unit. This is particularly frustrating and problematic when batteries need to be serviced or replaced. It is a waste, to say the least.
It should be possible to take PCs and mobile devices apart, and for consumers to replace vital components when needed. Big Tech companies should offer spare parts for several years even once the model has been discontinued.
There are many things that can be done to produce sustainable IT products. Standardizing cables for IT products would mean fewer cables to be manufactured and this would allow their re-use on multiple products by consumers. Companies need to start designing products that are durable, upgradeable, repairable, and reusable, whether these are computers or home appliances.
Creating a circular economy is part and parcel of the overall solution. In order for businesses to achieve a circular economy, they need to redefine growth and invest in business practices that benefit society as a whole.
The Right To Repair
Most e-waste management models around the world are based on the EPR concept which motivates the producers to reduce consumption of virgin materials. That isn’t enough. We need designs with a new vision.
Big Tech companies need to own up to their responsibilities and become active stakeholders in implementing a circular economy with designs that take into account not only the use of an object but its lifespan and recycling as well.
In the USA the ‘right to repair’ bill was introduced and has already gained traction thanks to backing from President Biden and Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak.
In December 2021, Dell announced its plans for Concept Luna, a sustainable and repairable laptop. News has it that Microsoft is looking into Xbox and Surface devices right to repair. All Big Tech companies should jump on board because it won’t take long for consumers to realize and appreciate the benefits.
The only viable solution to the e-waste dilemma is continued commitment to overcoming the challenges linked to e-waste management and recycling while focusing on business practices that benefit society as a whole, coupled with strong legislations that regulate the lifespan and recycling of all products.
Perhaps we ought to heed the words of Jason Hickel, in his book Less is More-How Degrowth Will Save The World, where he states:
“Degrowth begins as a process of taking less. But in the end, it opens up whole vistas of possibilities. It moves us from scarcity to abundance, from extraction to regeneration, from dominion to reciprocity, and from loneliness and separation to connection with a world that’s fizzing with life.”
We all need to pitch in if we want to keep this sublime planet and a stunning masterpiece of creation, our home.