Global E-waste: Scourge and Opportunity
I live in Zurich, Switzerland, the most sustainable city in the world. A perfectly organised urban oasis with meticulous recycling habits and a high quality of life. Yet just like everywhere else in the world, electronic devices break down faster and faster to make way for sexier gadgets every year. Today my boyfriend wanted to repair an otherwise perfectly functioning laptop that had a single system error. But when he visited the repair shop, he found that it would cost him almost the same amount of money to run diagnostics and repair his old laptop than to buy a brand new one. The incentive to buy a new device clearly trumped the motivation to repair. Does this absurd situation ring any bells?
This ordinary story is an instructive example of our extractive linear economy that treats electronic goods as disposables. This issue is compounded by the past decade, which has seen huge innovations in digital communication systems leading to the surge in the production of personal electronic devices such as laptops, mobile phones and tablets. In 2019 alone, 49 million tons of e-waste was created globally, while less than 20% of it was safely recycled. From resource extraction in the form of mining for precious metals and minerals needed to feed the growing hunger for devices, to the careless dumping of these products, e-waste is taking a toll on people and the planet. The good news is that circular solutions are out there that respect the precious materials, like gold and silver, that make up our electronic gadgets.
All this talk of the dematerialization of the digital world is true on the one hand, but while we may no longer read paper newspapers, the digital world is created by real people and raw materials that materialise our hardware. The electronics supply chain begins underground from the mines, to trading houses, to exporters, to transit countries, to refiners, and finally electronics companies. The complexity and diversity of resources and hands involved make electronics the most globalized commodity in the world, resulting in obscure supply chains that are difficult to track. Arguably, the most destructive parts of this circuit lie is the mining for rare earth minerals and metals, which are the building blocks of digital technologies, and of course the disposal of obsolete electronics.
The extent of the elements making up the guts of our devices is mind-boggling. Gold, silver, platinum, palladium, copper, tungsten, nickel, zinc, beryllium, cobalt, tantalum, lead and tin is required for circuity, while yttrium is essential for LCD screens. Some of the metals used for batteries in mobile phones contain nickel, cobalt, zinc, cadmium, and copper. The lithium-ion battery is in high demand in recent years leading lithium to be described as 'white gold.' Indeed, the high worth of minerals and metals in e-waste represents a huge financial opportunity for recycling e-waste. From the 130 million mobile phones that are discarded every year in the United States, they contain about 2,100 tons of copper, 46 tons of silver, 3.9 tons of gold, and 2 tons of palladium. Mining for these materials involves vast ecosystem destruction in many parts of the world as well as human rights abuses such as child labour behind cobalt mining in the DRC, and indigenous communities being violated by illegal gold mining.
In addition to the violent supply chains, electronic companies often do not reveal what is inside their products in order to maintain ‘trade secrets’ and therefore make it difficult for consumers to repair their own products to prolong their use. On top of this, planned obsolescence is rampant in the technology world. Technological products are purposefully designed in order to have a short life span to boost sales, and as a result encourage a culture of hyper-consumption and waste. A case in point is tech giant Apple, which has released 16 versions of the iphone since the premiere launch in 2010. Consumer electronics are often used for a relatively short period of time, around 2 years, and then discarded without being recycled.
With growing climate change concerns, the circular economy of electronic products is creeping into the mainstream story, which aims to keep consumer electronics in the system for as long as possible by changing the way we manufacture, view, and treat our devices. The circular approach begins by passing more responsibility onto the manufacturer as they control a great deal about how their products are designed and how long they last.
Manufacturers can extend the life of electronic products by greening the design process in order to make the devices easier to repair and recycle. An example is Fair Phone, a Dutch company that produces modular mobile phones so that consumers can repair and even upgrade their smartphone by replacing certain parts instead of buying a new one. The global right to repair movement is also putting pressure on governments to enforce companies to sell parts and reveal information about how to repair their electronic products. States across the country, including California, are facing up against the tech industry by pushing for the Right to Repair Act.
When devices have truly reached the end of their lives, recycling e-waste is essential in order to prevent toxic pollutants and elements from leaking into the environment, as well as bringing them back into the production cycle and reduce the necessity for further mining to make new products. Mining from discarded electronics is also much more energy efficient. For example extracting gold from electronics creates 80% less CO2 emissions than mining it from the ground.
As we can see e-waste is a complicated arena, but it starts from designing sustainable electronics that last longer, can be easily repaired, refurbished and recycled. As citizens we can do this by demanding that our governments create policies that force companies to comply to the circular economy approach. Ultimately, our society needs to wake up to the high human, environmental, and financial cost that goes into making electronic goods, and cease treating them as disposables.