With technological innovations shaping our society, it’s safe to say that people now can’t live without tech devices. Many of us can’t imagine going through a day without scrolling through social media feeds, watching television, and more. While we enjoy these technologies, our environment is suffering.
In 2017, Americans alone spent $71 billion on telephone and communication equipment, which is nearly five times what they spent in 2010 even when adjusted for inflation. However, the devices or equipment we are using now don’t last long. When we buy something new, we get rid of what’s old. This consumption cycle has made electronics waste the world’s fastest-growing solid-waste stream.
Previous reports revealed that e-waste has some of the worst environmental impacts. For instance, the metals used in making phones and batteries eventually end up in the ocean. Metal pollution can also pollute water tables. Once that happens, it’s next to impossible to avoid widespread contamination of crops and grazing animals. Aside from that, e-wastes are often burned to dispose them. Burning them can release dioxins into the air, which has health consequences.
The Increasing Problem with E-Waste
The increased usage of electronics in our society is an ongoing threat and challenge. Not only does the waste pose a threat to soil, water, and air, the pollution of those creates health risks for human beings. A 2017 report released by United Nations University (UNU) revealed that the world generated e-waste equal in weight to almost nine Great Pyramids of Giza, 4,500 Eiffel Towers, or 1.23 million fully loaded 18-wheel 40-ton trucks in 2016.
This increase was driven by the declining prices of electronic and electrical devices, making them more affordable. This has encouraged them to buy more devices. The report showed that the three electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) categories contribute the most to e-waste, which are also growing the fastest, include small equipment (i.e., vacuum cleaners, microwaves, ventilation equipment, toasters, electric kettles, and more); large equipment (i.e., washing machines, clothes dryers, dish-washing machines, electric stoves, and more), and temperature exchange equipment (i.e., refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, heat pumps, and more).
This year’s Global E-waste Monitor revealed that the world dumped a record 53.6 million tons of e-waste last 2019—an increase of 21% in five years. This is equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2 or enough to form a line 125 kilometers long. Of all continents, Asia generated the greatest volume of e-waste with 24.9 million tons. Asia is followed by America (13.1 million tons), Europe (12 million tons), Africa (2.9 million tons), and Oceania (0.7 million tons).
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, only 17.4% of the e-waste—which was $57 billion worth—was collected and recycled. These e-wastes were composed of gold, silver, copper, platinum, and other high-value, recoverable materials. "Even countries with a formal e-waste management system in place are confronted with the relatively low collection and recycling rates," the authors said.
The report also revealed that China was the biggest contributor of e-waste last year with 10.1 million tons, followed by the US (6.9 million tons), and India (3.2 million tons). The researchers said that the situation in China and India is symptomatic of a wider problem in developing countries, where demand for goods like washing machines, refrigerators, and air conditioners is rising rapidly. Additionally, e-waste in 2019 was mainly comprised of small equipment (17.4 million tons), large equipment (13.1 million tons), and temperature exchange equipment (10.8 million tons).
"In middle- and low-income countries, the e-waste management infrastructure is not yet fully developed or, in some cases, is entirely absent," the report said.
The E-Waste Management Market
According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, only 20% of global e-waste is formally recycled while the remaining 80% is often incinerated or dumped in landfill. This is one of the major reasons why global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing every year.
An estimated 98 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalents in 2019 alone were released into the atmosphere from discarded fridges and air-conditioners, contributing roughly 0.3 % of global greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists said that with proper e-waste management, we can help mitigate global warming.
A recent report by Allied Market Research showed that the e-waste management market size is expected to reach $102.62 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 11.9% from 2020 to 2027. This market refers to the reuse, resale, recycling, or disposal of discarded electronic and electrical devices. The increasing demand and growth for this market are driven by the reduced life span of electronic devices as well as the scarcity of sources of precious metals due to the depletion of resources.
Also, the growth of the e-waste management market is fueled by an increase in cloud bases services and a rise in the number of internet service users, regulatory policies, and online financial transactions.
Experts said that one of the solutions to control the surge of e-waste is to make electronics last as long as they once did. Many companies are developing and releasing devices that last for only a short time. Aside from that, new laptops don’t accept old cables, most smartphone batteries can’t be easily replaced when they stop holding a charge, and software companies push upgrades that won’t run on old devices.
“Our products today don’t last as long as they used to, and it’s a strategy by manufacturers to force us into shorter and shorter upgrade cycles,” Kyle Wiens, the founder of iFixit, which publishes do-it-yourself repair guides, said.
Many governments, including some parts of Europe, Canada, and the US, have passed laws requiring manufacturers to establish and fund systems to recycle or collect obsolete products. Environmental groups also believe that multibillion-dollar companies like Apple and Samsung should pick up the cost of recycling the devices they sell.
“Worldwide EPR legislation levels the playing field, because this cannot be done on a voluntary basis,” Scott Cassel, the founder of the Product Stewardship Institute, said.