Most people rely heavily on multiple electronic devices every day, with televisions, smartphones, laptop and desktop computers serving as some of the biggest examples. However, the continually improving nature of technology has made many of these devices short-term possessions, which are discarded after a few years.
This has led to the world producing unprecedented levels of electronic waste, or e-waste for short. According to e-waste statistics published by Statista, globally, more than 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste is produced every year, leading to major problems, including e-waste pollution, lead poisoning and the loss of precious resources.
The Rise of Electronics and E-Waste
Consumption of electronics has increased rapidly in modern times. This is partly because manufacturers are locked into battles to add new features, which then leads to consumers upgrading to a newer device before existing devices reach the natural end of their lifecycle and partly because the world has turned increasingly digital.
This shows no sign of slowing down either. In fact, the global consumer electronics market size is projected to increase from a value of $773 billion in 2023 to $1,239 billion by 2030, according to Fortune Business Insights.
While this is great for companies producing electronics, it is haunting our planet. The frequency of modern electronics disposal and the methods used are leading to unimaginable e-waste horror stories. This explains why there has been such a push for more responsible electronics disposal methods and calls for greater e-waste regulations.
However, it is also fair to say that current consumer behaviour needs to be reconsidered too.
The Environmental Consequences
The environmental consequences of e-waste and improper electronics disposal are grave. As an article for Earth.org explains, soil contamination from the lead and mercury in electronics is commonplace in areas around e-waste landfill sites. These materials can eventually seep into groundwater too, impacting land and water-based wildlife. On top of this, these toxic materials pose a serious risk to human health, as we will cover in the next section.
In addition to the issues with e-waste pollution and contamination, the improper disposal of electronics also depletes the Earth's natural resources. A post from The World Counts highlights the fact that many devices contain precious metals, such as gold and silver. In fact, $60 million worth of gold and silver is thrown out annually in the US alone.
Health Risks of E-Waste for Communities
The health risks of e-waste mounting up in the way that it currently is are numerous and far-reaching. One of the biggest examples, explained in an article for the Geneva Environment Network, is related to open-air burning and acid baths, which are two common techniques used to recover valuable materials from e-waste.
These practices expose workers to high levels of contaminants, like mercury, arsenic and beryllium, and this exposure can lead to serious and irreversible health problems, which include various types of cancer, neurological damage and miscarriages. It has even been observed that exposed workers can experience a drop in their IQ.
Pollution resulting from e-waste ending up in landfill or being burned to extract valuable materials can impact the local population too. This can lead to a decline in life expectancy, various lung conditions and more.
A failure to achieve meaningful e-waste reductions and proper e-waste recycling also greatly limits the amount of cobalt that is recovered from electronics. This, in turn, necessitates the extraction of more cobalt for use in laptops and other electronics.
Regulatory Efforts and E-Waste Management
Several e-waste regulations have been introduced, in an effort to tackle this mounting problem. One of the biggest examples, which applies across the European Union and in countries like the United Kingdom, is the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, or WEEE Directive for short.
This directive requires the separate collection of e-waste and sets targets for recovering e-waste. It is also designed to help countries fight illegal e-waste exports by making it more difficult for exporters to disguise what they are exporting. Some aspects of the directive have been successful, such as the provision of more e-waste recycling facilities across Europe and the introduction of separate collections for electronic waste.
However, the legislation has also been criticised for prioritising recycling and even encouraging recycling and recovery of materials over reuse. Of course, reuse, such as the sale of refurbished electronics and refurbished IT equipment, is far preferable to recycling, because it prevents any of the device from becoming e-waste.
The Importance of Responsible Recycling
This criticism is not to say that responsible recycling should not be encouraged. Responsible electronics disposal through recycling can allow valuable materials to be recovered from devices and reused to make new ones. It also helps to prevent many of the health risks associated with improper e-waste disposal.
Recycling remains one of the most crucial e-waste solutions, but should not be pursued at the expense of reuse. When you do need to dispose of electronics, you should consider resale. If this is not possible, use dedicated e-waste recycling facilities. If you are unsure where facilities are available, check with your local authorities.
Innovative Solutions and Technologies
Electronics manufacturers around the world are using innovative e-waste solutions and technologies to help tackle this problem. Apple, for example, are striving to become carbon neutral across entire product lifecycles by 2030 and are increasingly using recycled materials in their iPhone, iPad, MacBook and Apple Watch devices. The company uses a new robotics technology, named 'Dave', which can better recover key materials from recycled devices.
Meanwhile, away from manufacturers, other companies are pioneering new hydrometallurgical methods for recovering precious metals, milling them to a sand-like consistency, before separating gold, silver, platinum and other materials.
Success Stories and Role Models
The Republic of Ireland is broadly viewed as an e-waste recycling success story, beating its 2019 e-waste recycling target by two years. In the UK, Material Focus run the 'Recycle Your Electricals' campaign and their Electricals Recycling Fund has so far funded over 60 projects, helping to make it easier for ordinary people to recycle their electronics.
However, it is important to highlight the role that companies are playing in facilitating the reuse of devices too. The Wisetek Store is a great example of this, as we resell high-quality, refurbished electronics such as refurbished phones, refurbished laptops, refurbished desktops and more to an 'as new' standard, at affordable prices. This allows more people to access high-quality devices, while achieving e-waste reductions.
Current e-waste statistics make for harrowing reading and it is clear that electronics are currently haunting our planet, causing unimaginable suffering and misery, while polluting our air, land and waters. However, there are signs of hope and some success stories, encouraging recycling and the sale of refurbished IT equipment and other electronics.
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