E-waste and digital transformation: what’s in it for us?

Have you ever decided to buy a computer or a smartphone based on the recycling policy of its manufacturer? Have you read the policy, or at least wondered? These questions have arrived decades ago, but as individuals and society we still ignore them by a large margin. Although this has started to change, much more needs to be happening now that we have decidedly entered the era of digital transformation.

Can e-waste shrink while digital transformation accelerates and grows?

Digital transformation means, in simple terms, that anything – any old or new process, service or product that can go digital, is digitized already or will soon be. While digital transformation is a bright facet of technological progress today, e-waste remains its dark one. If a definition of e-waste is still needed, here is one from globalwaste.org: “all items of electrical and electronic equipment and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use”. 

But who is that owner? E-waste is generated by both enterprises and individuals, and the same can be said of digital transformation; not only enterprises are undergoing digital transformation, but also individuals. As we lay hands on more electronics, e-waste is set to grow. Personal behaviours and beliefs can shape demand and markets, and our personal digital transformation must include fighting e-waste.

World wide waste

Efforts to address e-waste have started as early as 1989 with the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. E-waste contains toxic materials as well as useful ones that should be recovered. But too many times both toxic and useful ended being dumped or burned in jurisdictions with lax environmental regulations. Many countries have now adopted legislation and policies to prevent these practices. There are international bodies that measure, monitor, and advise on e-waste. At enterprise level, there are preoccupations with cradle-to-grave-care for electronics and with environmentally sound management. Local initiatives have sprung up at grass root level to raise awareness and curb e-waste, businesses have been created to tackle the issue and recycling facilities have been built. Yet the upwards e-waste trend has not stopped.

In 2019 alone, according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, the world generated a striking 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste. The same report foresees 74 million Mt of e-waste globally for 2030. Of that amount, less than 20 per cent is currently collected and recycled. While it may be hard to fathom what this looks like, it is easier to relate to the average amount of electronic junk for each person on the planet: 7.3 kg. There are big differences by geographical areas, yet these staggering numbers are growing everywhere. 

The great disconnect 

We are not bombarded with these numbers and stories nearly as much as we are with incentives to buy the latest model of everything. Advertising is never about how recyclable a new computer, appliance, or electrical vehicle is. Cradle-to-grave-care for electronics is not front of mind in marketing – and markets have yet to reward this type of effort. A ubiquitous shift in corporate practices of design, production, and marketing of electronics and appliances has not happened yet. The reuse-repair-recycle virtues of a laptop are not showcased or advertised as are the speed of the CPU or the size of the storage and other, less consequential, parameters. 

Planned obsolescence is still largely practiced, and there are unnecessary or marginal improvements that cut short the useful life of perfectly well functioning electronics. And so the pile of discarded ones is ever-growing. The digital transformation economy is still one in which want trumps need. 

Personal digital transformation to the rescue?

It may be easier to attack e-waste and shape digital transformation from the personal digital transformation angle. The individual consumer is a drop in the ocean, and a drop does not count, yet the ocean is the sum of its drops. Can someone move with the technological times while becoming an e-waste warrior? 

Many individual consumers still don’t know what to do with a computer, printer, or cell phone they have replaced out of necessity or habit. I may not be the only one with a big box of videotapes, diskettes, and unwanted CDs in the closet – I am told these are still not accepted for recycling, and I’d rather not have them in the dumpster. I have not found yet a way to repurpose them. Repurposing old electronics is one personal digital transformation strategy to consider: maximize lifespan!

I have other old electronics still in use – not only that, they have outlived similar newer ones I bought. A venerable 33 years old radio clock still does its daily job, while two newish (and bulkier!) ones bought a few years ago gave up on me and are now waiting to be recycled. (I doubt there is a way or a place to repair them). One refurbished laptop I bought twelve years ago is still chugging along and good enough to run mundane things with an office suite. Mobile phones that I was insistently offered an upgrade for still function very well years later. And I still have digital cameras that would take great pictures, had I not succumbed to the convenience of the phone camera. Holding on to old technology is, maybe surprisingly, another viable personal digital transformation strategy: minimize purchase of new electronics!

I may be part of a small and unwelcome minority in my clinging to old, good-enough, still-working electronics. As individuals we can contribute immensely to addressing the e-waste problem in the age of digital transformation by changing our mentality and actions. The primary strategy is asking ourselves (as well as retailers and manufacturers) this one question: if I buy this new shiny thing today, how do I recycle, repurpose or discard?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Tatiana Andronache
Tatiana Andronache
After decades as an application developer and systems business analyst for a major IT corporation, Tatiana Andronache is still keeping an eye on where technology is leading us, and sometimes she can't resist penning her observations.

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