Few of us give a thought to the immense amount of resources needed to bring a gadget to life. It has been estimated that it takes at least 1.5 tons of water, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 530 pounds of fossil fuel to produce a computer and CRT monitor. Smartphone production requires many different rare earth metals, and mining them dramatically contributes to the device’s carbon footprint. And due to smartphones’ ubiquity, the carbon footprint of smartphone production may exceed desktops, laptops or displays.
As electronics shipments climb and refresh cycles shorten every year, e-waste is placing a huge burden on the environment.
Where do they come from?
Electronic waste, defined as any discarded device that uses batteries or plugs into an outlet, is surging in volume. In 2019 alone, the world produced a staggering 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste, 21 per cent more than in 2015, and 83 per cent more than in 2010. Worse still, only 17.4 per cent of that was documented as collected and recycled. By 2030, the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that global e-waste generation will reach 74.7 million tonnes.
Canada, the U.S., and E.U. countries are a heavy offenders. According to the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), Canada generated 638,300 tons of e-waste in 2017. By 2025, BIR expects that the U.S. and Canada combined will generate 9.25 million tonnes of e-waste.
It’s easy to pinpoint the source of this alarming trend. Over the years, technology has permeated all industries. The intense competition in digital transformation and data-driven business models, combined with new use cases in IoT, blockchain, artificial intelligence and more, have created an unprecedented urgency for organizations to update hardware. In 2021 alone, global PC shipments exceeded 340 million units.
With the advancements in smart appliances and connected devices, people in developed countries now own more electronic devices than ever. Deloitte estimated that an average U.S. household now has 25 connected devices ranging from smartwatches to smart speakers – more than double the 11 in 2019. Their rapid adoption means more frequent update cycles. Moreover, some devices’ lifespans are hard-capped by factors such as software support obsolescence, battery degradation, and poor repairability.
Damage to health and the environment
A great part of the issue lies with improper e-waste disposal, in particular the illegal export of e-waste to poorly managed landfills in developing countries. These practices endanger the environment as well as the importing country’s citizens. Waste scavengers in developing countries often forage through landfills for electronics, hoping to turn a profit by recovering rare metals. But in doing so, they also expose themselves to severe health risks.
Toxins in e-waste, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, and other industrial chemicals such as arsenic, have been strongly linked to a number of illnesses. Many of these toxins fall under a category of hazards called dioxin-related compounds (DRC). These compounds are particularly damaging because they can accumulate in the human body for years, causing long-term damage.
When improperly processed, they can devastate the environment and the food industry. The chemicals can seep into soils and water supplies, harming flora and fauna. When they contaminate fisheries and farms, these toxins get passed on to people through food. Metal mining and refinery operations also emit vast amounts of toxins and greenhouse gasses, contributing to climate change.
They’ve also been shown to disrupt early childhood development, cause hormone imbalances, and increase the risk of multiple types of cancer. In high enough quantities, they can compromise organ functions, especially the liver, kidneys, lungs, and the nervous system. Children, the elderly, and pregnant women are much more susceptible to these risks.
In a 2021 report, the WHO noted that e-waste volume rose by 63 per cent between 2010 to 2015 in East and South-East Asia alone. India and Africa are also popular destinations for dumping e-waste.
E-waste on these continents is usually informally processed, meaning they’re crudely burned or melted with acid to extract the precious metals. Many of these facilities often have no worker protection and employ child labour. The WHO report estimates that between 2.9 and 12.9 million women may be at risk from exposure to toxic e-waste through their work in the informal waste sector, and around 18 million children are employed in waste processing industries.
Photographer Kai Löffelbein captured the grim realities of these e-waste sites in a gallery for Wired.
These concerns have accumulated into great worries for consumers. Although value is still king, 35 per cent of consumers now check the sustainability of electronics before they buy, more than those who check their carbon footprints when they travel. They’re becoming increasingly sensitive to qualities like environmentally friendly packaging, supply chain transparency, and recycled materials.
There’s money to be made
In an almost morbid twist, the swelling e-waste volume also presents a vast business opportunity. Research firm Vantage predicted that the global e-waste management market will increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.5 per cent between 2022 and 2028. A separate report by Market Research Future concluded that the e-waste recycling market will grow to US$99.7 billion and at a 16.2 per cent CAGR, by 2030. These opportunities will help bolster the economy; global employment in the waste management sector is projected to increase by 70 per cent by 2030.
Processing e-waste also opens the opportunity to recover the precious metals used in every device. If all the rare metals were salvaged from the discarded e-waste in 2019, it would have been worth around US$57 billion, estimated conservatively.
Metals other than copper end up as e-waste – gold, silver, palladium, platinum, indium and gallium all have their uses in electronics. More than 16,000 tonnes of metals can be recovered from recycling 1 million cellphones.
What’s being done
E-waste generation outpacing efforts to recycle paints a bleak picture. However, the world is ramping up efforts to mitigate the issue, and everyone can help.
For starters, e-waste recycling organizations are constantly developing more efficient methods to process old gadgets into materials for other things. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that there are now more than 150 electronics processing facilities in Canada, and a third of them comply with standards set out by the EPSC and Canada’s Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA). EPRA alone claims that it keeps 100,000 tonnes of old electronics out of landfills every year. Some other notable organizations include Returnit, ElectroRecycle, Call2Recycle and more.
The Canadian government began targeting e-waste management in 1999, but in recent years, it has set up tougher regulations. At the absolute minimum, most Canadian provinces follow the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for e-products. Building upon EPR, Canada has set up the Electronics Product Stewardship (EPS) to urge device manufacturers to produce devices without toxic materials. More important, it has tightened the governance and repercussions of illegal e-waste exporting.
Even just staying informed can have an effect on the industry. Across the supply chain, electronics manufacturers have all made a big show of sourcing sustainable options to drive parts of their businesses. OEMs such as Samsung, HP, Dell, etc all now incorporate recycled materials in their products or packaging to varying degrees.
AMD, TSMC, Apple, Microsoft and other global tech giants have all included e-waste as a key target in their respective pledges to reach carbon neutrality. While these initiatives appear to be motivated by their concerns for the environment, they’re at least partially responding to consumer awareness.
There’s still much, much more work to be done, however, and it needs the concerted efforts from governments, OEMs, recyclers/refurbishers, as well as consumers. New policies, research, and technologies need to make every stage of the devices’ lifecycle more sustainable and safer. Additionally, initiatives that support the right to repair need more support as they can extend the lifespan of existing devices. From suppliers to manufacturers, every organization needs to be held accountable for its environmental choices.
What can we do?
The best thing anyone can do is to demand their government representatives take stronger actions against climate change and vote for politicians who emphasize environmental policies.
Harvard University outlined six easy ways for consumers to cut down on e-waste in their everyday lives:
- Choose between ‘needs’ versus ‘wants’ when purchasing new devices.
- Protect and maintain the devices so they last longer.
- Look for environmentally-focused certifications like Energy Star and other qualities that promote sustainability.
- Donate used electronics to social programs.
- Reuse large electronics. Harvard actually has a Harvard Reuse List.
- Recycle and dispose of electronics responsibly. Search for local electronics recycling centres. A list of dropoff points can also be found through recyclemycell.ca, a program established by the federal government.
Before recycling, however, check with your municipality to see what items qualify as electronic waste. Also, remember to thoroughly delete all personal information before disposal.