Electronic waste is piling up quickly with technology advancing at a break-neck pace. Tech companies make millions off the latest, most excellent tech built up by release dates and social media hype. As a tech company, it pays to have new technology come out as often as possible to stay at the forefront of consumers’ minds. The consumer loves the idea of being part of this celebration. Tech companies continue to ride the hype wave and ensure products are released regularly. To accomplish this, tech is made to be replaced. A CPU lifespan was 4-6 years in 1997; in 2005, the lifespan was two years.
Seems counter-intuitive, right? With technology getting better, it should last longer. Not if you are a tech company and want to ensure you can release the next thing within a year. Welcome to Western consumerism. The problem is creating all of this new technology, and electronic waste is putting a strain on resources. The by-products of these processes are poisoning the environment.
The Ingredients of Electronics
Ten tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere to create 1 ton of laptops. By 2040, carbon emissions from electronics production will reach 14% of total worldwide emissions. These emissions include mining the raw materials for the technology and the actual manufacturing process. Our electronics contain sixty or more elements in various compounds. You will find precious metals within your computer or phone, such as gold, copper, and nickel. Also, there are rare earth elements, like indium and palladium. The creation of electronics and improper disposal results in a significant loss of scarce and valuable raw materials. Some raw materials that are becoming scarce are neodymium, platinum, ruthenium indium (in flat-screen TVs), and cobalt (batteries).
Running Out of Ingredients
It is essential to understand mineral amounts are finite. In other words, their quantities are limited. What we have is what we have, and when it is gone, it is gone. Earth is a closed system; The only thing that can come and go, and must for life to exist, is light and heat (think the sun). 7% of the world’s gold is in the electronics we have already created. There is 100 times more gold in a ton of mobile devices than in a ton of gold ore. Extending the life of electronics or harvesting the resources from them is far more sustainable than the current system, not to mention it has a more substantial economic benefit. Eventually, there will be no more gold in Earth’s crust to mine. Ultimately, the only gold available will be in the products we have already created.
Electronic waste is the most significant growing waste stream in the world. 50 million tons of electronic waste are produced annually, with 50% originating in the US and Europe. Annually electronic waste is worth $62.5 billion, more than most countries GDP. Here’s the kicker: most of it works. Electronic waste is increasing because everyone wants the latest, greatest tech. Everyone rushed to replace their working tech from last year and got rid of a perfectly functioning device. Unfortunately, only 20% of the electronic waste produced is recycled properly. The goal should be to refurbish what can be refurbished, and properly recycle, what cannot. This is the foundation of a circular economy.
Shipping Our Problem Elsewhere
In the past, the Western world’s solution for electronic waste has been to ship it to developing nations worldwide. However, this is no longer an option. Consequently, the Western world is now scrambling to reevaluate our recycling programs, electronic and otherwise. Despite its regulation under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, electronic waste is still illegally shipped to Africa, India, and China. Once there, processing occurs in informal, crude recycling facilities where women and children make up 30% of the workforce. Many studies show miscarriage increases, still and premature births, reduced birth weights, and lengths in women exposed to electronic waste. In most low- and middle-income countries, handling and disposal of electronic waste is unregulated.
In June 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its first report on electronic waste and children’s health. In conjunction with this report is the one-hundred-page Children and Digital Dumpsites. The WHO found As many as 18 million children and adolescents and 12.9 million women, including an unknown number of women of childbearing age, may be at risk from adverse health outcomes linked to e-waste recycling. These women and children work in small, unregulated electronic waste facilities in middle-to-low-income countries.
Electronic Waste and the Environment
Most electronic waste is landfilled. Electronic waste does not biodegrade and is considered toxic due to the inclusion of heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead, and mercury. These heavy metals and flame retardants leach into the soil and underlying groundwater. Much of the soil contamination is persistent, and the pollutants remain in the land for a long time. While there, toxins react with other environmental chemicals to form new, even more toxic compounds. As rainwater passes through the contaminated soil, it picks up heavy metals and other pollutants and carries them into the water system traveling hundreds of miles. As a result, the water becomes acidic and toxic. Not surprisingly, there are adverse effects on ecosystems at a level that extends far from the communities where the electronic waste is.
Most people know that arsenic is a poison, but most do not know it is a heavy metal. Life does not tolerate even small amounts of heavy metals. Plants exposed to heavy metals suffer from damaged cell structure and altered metabolism, which leads to reduced growth or death. Animals that consume these plants also become toxic. Toxins travel up the food chain and accumulate within the animals. Over time the animal accumulates enough of the poison to kill it. This process is called bio-accumulation. The larger the animal, the more the impact of the toxin. This is because larger animals need to eat more to sustain life. Bio-accumulation leads to highly complex disruptions to an ecosystem. Why does this matter to us? We are a part of the ecosystem. As large animals, we get significant toxins between the meat and plants we eat.
The Far Reach of Our Electronics
There is another, mostly unseen, and arguably more important, consequence of our electronics. Across the world, inhumane conditions dominate the mines that pull the raw materials for our electronics. The money made from the mines often financially supports rebel groups and terrorist organizations. The actual cost of our electronics is human life and dignity.
Most are familiar with “blood diamonds,” thanks to the movie of the same name. The film showed the reality of the civil war in Sierra Leone and the economic power of the resources there. There are many countries in the world where the same scenario is playing out with many different minerals. Those minerals aren’t as well known or as sexy as diamonds. Therefore, the situation of the people most affected goes unseen. By buying electronics, we, in the Western world, are supporting those rebel groups and terrorist organizations. While some companies, like Apple, have taken steps to verify minerals come from illegal and human mines, this process is slow and challenging to regulate. Ultimately, as consumers, it is up to us to make better choices when buying and disposing of electronics.
The Circular Economy Approach with Electronic Waste
The most effective solution is a circular economy approach. Nations need to implement and invest in the circular model at all levels of society. A circular economy is a “system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value at all times, and waste is designed out of the system.” If we recycled just the raw materials from the 1.46 billion smartphones manufactured in 2017, they would be worth $11.5 billion. A circular economy for electronics could reduce consumers’ costs by 7% by 2030 and 14% by 2040. Recycling metals is 2 to 10 times more energy-efficient and cheaper than mining. That savings will ultimately trickle down to the consumer.
The Power of the Consumer
The simple fact is we are struggling to find ways to deal with the waste we produce. The practices of yesterday are no longer viable as China, and other countries have banned US garbage imports. We cannot continue to bury our trash or ship it to other countries for them to deal with. We have to re-use what we can, or we will be up to our eyeballs in waste. The beautiful thing about this scenario is we, the consumer, ultimately guide companies. Stop and think the next time you buy or dispose of electronics—however small it may seem, your choice matters.