What is E-Waste?
The Evolution of Consumer Tech
These days, personal tech products are constantly evolving. Around every corner is an upgrade to an existing model or a new feature, which you later fail to see how you lived without. As you unpeel the plastic layer off the new toy, you drop the antiquated device in the ol’ junk drawer for safe keeping. Or, worse, the trash can.
At the same time, your gadgets are playing an ever-greater role in your daily life. It’s a phone in your pocket. A laptop in your bag. A bluetooth speaker on your bookshelf. A digital coffee maker on your counter.
Oh, and cords. They’re everywhere.
The variation of devices we buy is growing, too. A smartwatch for your notifications. A portable charger to stay powered on-the-go. A waterproof bluetooth speaker for the beach or pool. In fact, the number of devices we each own and use has ballooned in recent years. Today, the average number per family owns a staggering 80 devices.
And yet, none of it is designed to last very long.
The Planned Obsolescence of Tech
The consumer tech industry’s policy to design goods that breakdown or become outdated quickly, requiring you to replace them more often.
Why, you ask? Incremental revenue. According to the Consumer Technology Association, the industry’s expecting to achieve a record-breaking $398 billion in revenue this year. And that’s just the U.S.
Economics and ethical practices aside, this means an unprecedented amount of waste generated. Electronic waste.
Electronic waste, or “E-Waste,” refers to any electronic device designated to be recycled, reused, or in most cases, sent to a landfill. Old phones, computers, tablets, TV remotes, Roombas, all of it.
Is E-Waste a Problem?
The sheer quantity of e-waste is piling up at a rate faster than at any time in history.
The United States alone produces 9.4 million tons each year. Worldwide e-waste levels are expected to reach over 50 million tons in 2019 with an annual 4% to 5% growth.
That works out to about 25 million passenger cars, or 125,000 Boeing 747 jumbo jets worth in weight.
And although it only amounts to 2% of all solid waste, electronics are responsible for 70% of all hazardous waste.
The unfortunate reality is most e-waste is not being disposed of responsibly. For example, less than 1% of smartphones are currently being recycled, and less than 20% of all e-waste is recycled through appropriate channels. The rest is dumped in landfills, or recycled through inferior conditions. When it does make it to a landfill, common toxins such as lead, mercury, and cadmium seep into the soil and water, creating potentially harmful scenarios for affected ecosystems.
Is There a Solution for E-Waste?
Yes. There’s an upside.
By now, it’s clear the production of consumer tech products isn’t slowing anytime soon. As emerging markets spread around the world, and our lives become more digital, e-waste generation will swell.
The question then is, “how will we deal with it?”
Some organizations, such as Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), are already working on it. SERI is a non-profit dedicated to the responsible reuse, repair, and recycling of electronic products. They’re focused on working with stakeholders everywhere to develop safe, eco-friendly recycling practices; and boost access to certified electronics recyclers.
SERI is also the housing-body for the R2 Standard, which provides a common set of processes, safety measures, and documentation requirements for businesses that repair and recycle used electronics. R2 is rigorously and independently audited, emphasizing quality, safety and transparency. More than 800 facilities are currently R2 certified in 31 countries, including our own e-waste recycling partner, Homeboy Electronics Recycling, in Los Angeles.
Perhaps the greatest hurdle, however, is the cost of high-tech recycling facilities. This requires investment from both public and private resources. A major challenge for SERI and other groups is establishing consumer (aka voters) demand for new solutions to a problem most, understandably, know little or nothing about.
In an effort to spur this demand, SERI works with a coalition of partners to raise awareness of electronics repair and recycling issues around the world. More awareness means leads to more demand for e-waste solutions. More demand leads to more action from manufacturers and localities, which in turn, leads to more facility openings, job opportunities and mass access to responsible recycling.
Another important benefit of e-waste recycling involves the amount of valuable materials gathered from the process.
According to a recent EPA report, we dispose of 416,000 mobile devices EVERY DAY. For every one million cell phones recycled, the EPA states that 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium are recovered.
These materials can be used to produce new products, helping to conserve existing natural resources. As a result, we save energy, reduce pollution, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and save resources by extracting fewer raw materials from the earth.
Real progress is achievable thanks to those willing to do the work to make it easier for the rest of us to get involved. But it will require not only an increase in accessible, and economically viable recycling methods, but a greater collective acknowledgment of the issue, and ecological challenges it creates.
Hopefully, the consumer electronics industry will take on a much larger role in the coming years. In the meantime, you can do your part by bringing as much as attention to the issue as possible, and recycling your own e-waste, responsibly.
Click here to learn more about the Nimble “One for One” Tech Recovery Project and how you can get involved.