In 2016, the world’s population discarded 49 million tons of e-waste (equivalent to about 4,500 Eiffel Towers). It’s estimated that by 2021, that number will grow to more than 60 million tons.
Why the upsurge in e-waste?
Technology is becoming more and more integrated into every aspect of our lives. Semiconductors and sensors are being added to products that never before had them, creating wearable monitors, smart homes, TVs that can stream programming from the internet, and much more.
Meanwhile, the life span of devices is getting shorter—many products will be thrown away once their batteries die, to be replaced with new devices. Companies intentionally plan the obsolescence of their goods by updating the design or software and discontinuing support for older models, so that now it is usually cheaper and easier to buy a new product than to repair an old one. Meanwhile, the companies continue to profit from steady sales.
With the flood of e-waste growing around the world, recycling alone will not be enough. Here are some other ideas and solutions that are being researched, considered or practiced around the world. Hopefully, they will inspire more adoption of best practices.
Designing better products
In order to reduce e-waste, manufacturers need to design electronics that are safer, and more durable, repairable and recyclable. Most importantly, this means using less toxic materials. Chemical engineers at Stanford University are developing the first fully biodegradable electronic circuit using natural dyes that dissolve in acid with a pH 100 times weaker than vinegar. One group of scientists is pulverizing e-waste into nanodust by cooling the various materials, then grinding them up into homogenous powders that are “easy to reuse.” Canada-based Ronin8 has developed a technology that uses minimal water and energy as it separates metals from non-metals through sonic vibrations in recycled water. The right to repair
In addition to recycling, it’s also important to be able to repair and reuse the devices we have. But even if you know how to and want to repair your electronic device, you might be stymied because your product’s software is subject to copyright. The copyright often forbids consumers by law to tinker with or reverse-engineer the device or use an unauthorized repairer. Ifixit.org demands the right to repair devices and teaches people how to do it.
Extended Producer Responsibility
Extended producer responsibility requires companies that make products to be responsible for the management and disposal of them at the end of their lives. The idea is to turn waste materials into a resource for producing new products. The New York State Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act requires manufacturers to provide consumers with free and convenient e-waste recycling.
A circular economy is one that aims to keep products and all their materials in circulation at their highest value at all times or for as long as possible. Stephanie Kersten-Johnston, an adjunct professor in the Sustainability Management program at Columbia University and director of sustainable business at Heineken USA, explained that “highest value” means what’s closest to the original product, in order to get the most out of the embedded value in the material and the labor that went into creating the product. Europe has made the circular economy a goal for the whole continent.
What you can do about e-waste?
The best thing you can do is to resist buying a new device until you really need it. Try to get your old product repaired if possible and if it can’t be fixed, resell or recycle it responsibly.
Before you recycle your device, seal up any broken parts in separate containers so that hazardous chemicals don’t leak. Wear latex gloves and a mask if you’re handling something that’s broken.