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With 50 million tonnes of electronic waste produced each year and enterprises having policies in place for its disposal, there is still the problem in many countries of too much of it ending up in landfill or being informally disposed of.
What Kind of Electronic Waste
A 2019 UN report showed that the world produces as much as 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (also known as e-waste) but that only 20% of this is formally recycled.
A 2019 report by Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the UN E-Waste Coalition has highlighted how, at the current rate, global e-waste production could reach a staggering 120 million tonnes per year by 2050.
To put the quantity of waste in context, the current worldwide pile of electronic waste weighs more than all the commercial airliners ever made. The UK, for example, currently produces 24.9kg of e-waste per person, which is nearly 10kg more than the European Union (EU) average.
What Kind of Waste?
The definition of e-waste covers electrical equipment at or near the end of its life and could include anything from computers and other devices, keyboards, mice, cables, circuit boards, televisions, audio equipment, old DVD or VCR units, MP3 players and phone handsets, digital/video cameras, copiers/scanners and all manner of electrical office equipment.
There are several key issues surrounding the disposal in landfill, or simply the unauthorised disposal and dumping of e-waste. These include:
Electronic waste contains many toxic components that can cause lasting damage to the environment, to animal and plant life, and to humans if they are left in the ground and/or are washed down into the water table. Toxic elements include Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, Lithium, Barium and more. Additionally, complex compounds such as Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and others are among the e-waste as well.
Polyvinyl Chloride from the plastic casings of electrical products can pose serious environmental and health risks. Plastic is also one of the many components which could represent a missed opportunity to recycle valuable elements.
The Loss of Valuable/Scarce Materials
If e-waste is not disposed of in a way that allows proper recycling, valuable and scarce (and re-usable) materials such as gold, platinum, cobalt (all of which have already taken an environmental toll through their mining) are lost. For example, it is estimated that 7 per cent of the world’s gold may currently locked-away in e-waste and that there is 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore! Also, for every 1 million mobile phone handsets that are recycled, an estimated 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium can be recovered.
The Small Amount That Is Recycled
Although the proportion of recycling varies between countries, in global terms only 20 per cent of e-waste goes down the formal recycling route, with the rest going to landfill or being ‘informally’ recycled. In fact, reports from India indicate that over 90% of electronic waste management is carried out by informal sector workers there, most of whom are unaware of their rights and are faced with serious health risks, especially since they process the waste by hand and are exposed to dangerous and carcinogenic chemicals as a result.
The Loss of Assets
Some tech commentators argue that disposing of assets before their end-of-life (e.g. simply because that has been something the company has always done) amounts to bad practice and wasting company assets that could still be creating value.
A Focus On Security
For many companies, the need for security, data protection and the protection of the business data assets are reasons why they may be tempted down the route of physical destruction of their electronic assets rather than their recycling or reuse.
While many developing countries consume large amounts of electrical equipment, there is often a lack of any formal recycling route, thereby adding to the environmental crisis and health risks that e-waste is creating globally.
Developed Countries Sending Waste To Developing Countries
Even though the EU and 186 states have signed up to the Basel Convention, the international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, wealthy, developed countries send around 23 per cent of their e-waste to developing countries each year. This could mean that large amounts of that waste ends up going down the informal recycling/disposal route rather than being effectively recycled. The U.S., for example, has not ratified the Basel Convention and can, therefore, ship its hazardous waste to developing countries.
The Effect of the Pandemic
The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a variety of effects on e-waste. For example, here in the UK, schoolchildren and companies who suddenly had their workforce working from home needed laptops and other mobile devices. Due to global supply chain problems for new units caused by the pandemic lockdowns, huge demand developed for used devices, many of which came from IT Asset Disposal firms (ITADs).
Tackling a growing e-waste crisis will take a number of different measures over time globally. Getting to a situation where there is the creation of a circular economy for electronic goods where waste is minimised, the most is made of resources, the environment and health are protected, and businesses and developing economies can still meet their demand, will take a wide variety of actions. These include legislation (such as legislation by 67 countries plus the UK to deal with the e-waste they generate), and having a more digital and connected world to help accelerate progress towards sustainable development goals, thereby helping emerging economies, and ensuring that less precious minerals, metals and resources are dumped into landfill. Also, an approach that could dematerialise the electronics industry e.g. through ‘device-as-a-service’ business models, better product tracking and take-back schemes, and entrepreneurs, investors, academics, business leaders and lawmakers working together could help make the circular economy work.