Eliminating E-Waste: Big Tech Can Do Better
It’s unreasonable to expect that the massive problem of e-waste can be solved at any scale by individuals. We need an industry-wide reckoning.
E-waste is one of the largest environmental problems the world faces. The amount of electronics that are disposed of each year is not fully-quantified, but its impact is, in ever-accelerating climate change. As technology evolves, it exacerbates the problem with myriad new products. But it also can help with solutions.
When we’re talking about e-waste, we’re talking about items large and small, from a tiny outdated iPod that gets tossed in the trash to a roomful of servers that have reached the end of their usefulness and are sent off for recycling. Whether these items are improperly sent to landfills or are properly processed so their parts can be reused, their disposal takes a toxic toll on the Earth and the humans who inhabit it.
Potential e-waste is all around you: the screen you’re reading this on, the tablet you use to stream shows, the smart washing machine in your basement. It’s the copiers and servers in your workplace. And it’s the very equipment that’s powering the internet, from its sources to the router that’s delivering this news to you.
The UN leads the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership, which attempts to track the amount of e-waste in the world. It puts e-waste into six categories: temperature-exchange equipment (refrigerators, air conditioners), screens and monitors, lamps, large equipment (washing machines, copiers), small equipment (cameras, smart speakers), and small IT and telecommunications equipment (phones, routers). So much fits in these categories, and so much of it overwhelms landfills.
THE CURRENT STATE OF E-WASTE
The amount of e-waste is incalculable because it’s undocumented. Electronics are embedded in every facet of our lives, but they have short life cycles. And when the time comes to replace a product, it is rarely disposed of in a way that would limit its impact on the environment, despite the fact that 71% of the world’s population is governed by some form of e-waste legislation.
When faced with throwing something in the trash or having to pack it up and ship or drive it to a recycling center, most people choose the simplest solution to the immediate problem. “We’ve found the largest barrier to proper e-waste recycling is education and general awareness,” said Wesley Poritz, the founder of Big Sky Recycling. “Recycling plastics is confusing enough, so adding cell phones, chargers, computers and other gadgets into the mix can be a bit overwhelming.” So the amount of electronics that sit in towering piles of trash is simply unknown.
The latest report from The Global E-waste Statistics Partnership calculates that in 2019 alone, the world produced 53.6 megatons of e-waste, and less than 18% of that was documented and recycled. The rate of production of electronics has outstripped the speed at which recycling efforts have grown, making for an ever-growing problem.
When e-waste is mixed with other trash, it ends up in a landfill or is incinerated. Either way, the toxic elements that lie within it are released. These can include mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, thallium, bromine flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, and more. They seep into the ground, polluting it and, eventually, the large bodies of water they make their way to, causing contamination of the food chain and drinking water. And in being burned, e-waste releases the carcinogenic gas dioxin.
IS RECYCLING REALLY THE ANSWER?
While it sounds like the cornerstone of responsible behavior regarding e-waste, recycling also takes a toll on the environment. Removing the precious and reusable metals within an item and its components is inherently a toxic process. And e-waste is not distributed equally. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the regions that are stripped of their resources needed to manufacture electronics are where those electronics are dumped after they’re used. When products are discarded via recycling programs, they often end up in Asia, Africa, India, and South America, according to a UN report.
Because of the harm it causes to communities, repurposing e-waste is a motivating factor in many affected countries. It’s a hazard to the people who are tasked with breaking it down by hand without any protection. Frequently, these people are children. The National Commission For Protection of Child Rights in India recently found that children as young as eight are involved in segregating hazardous e-waste. Greenpeace has documented children in Ghana dismantling computers and TVs for the metals inside while the remaining plastic flames up, releasing toxic gases. Populations at large in places with unregulated dumping face ecological and health disasters with the contamination of their land and water. The entire planet is wrecked with the carbon consequences of transporting the devices to these places.
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