Western Waste: The Far Reaching Consequences of Our Electronic Waste

A comprehensive look at the impact of creating and disposing of electronics.

With technology advancing at a break-neck pace, electronic waste is piling up. 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 the consumer’s mind. The consumer loves the idea of being part of this celebration. Tech companies continue to ride the wave of hype and make sure products are released regularly.  To accomplish this, tech is made to be replaced. The lifespan of a CPU 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 you want to make sure you can release the next thing within a year. Welcome to Western consumerism. The problem is the creation of all of this new technology, and the electronic waste created 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 emission from the production of electronics will reach 14% of total worldwide emissions.  These emissions include mining the raw materials for the technology, as well as the actual manufacturing process.  Our electronics contain sixty or more elements in various compounds. Within your computer or phone, you will find precious metals, such as gold, copper, and nickel. Also, there are rare earth elements, like indium and palladium.  The creation of electronics and the improper disposal of them is resulting in a significant loss of scarce and valuable raw materials. Some of the raw materials that are becoming scare 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. In the end, the only gold available to us will be in the products we have already created.  

Electronic Waste

Electronic waste is the most significant growing waste stream in the world. Every year, there are 50 million tons of electronic waste produced, with 50% of that originating in the US and Europe.  Annually electronic waste is worth $62.5 billion, which is more than the GDP of most countries. 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 device that functions perfectly.  Unfortunately, only 20% of the electronic waste produced is recycled properly.

Shipping Our Problem Elsewhere

In the past, the Western world’s solution for electronic waste has been to ship it to developing nations around the world. 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 places like Africa, India, and China. Once there, processing takes place in informal, crude recycling facilities where women and children make up 30% of the workforce. Many studies show increases in miscarriage, 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. 

Electronic Waste and the Environment

Most electronic waste is simply land-filled.  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 are reacting with other chemicals in the environment to form new, even more toxic compounds. As rainwater passes through the contaminated soil, it picks up heavy metals and other pollutants and carries it 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. 

Bio-Accumulation

Most people are aware 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 because of the amount of the toxin it eats 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 a large animal, we get a significant amount of these 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 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, it is up to us, as consumers, to make better choices when buying and disposing of electronics. 

The Circular Economy Approach

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 just the raw materials from the 1.46 billion smartphones manufactured in 2017 were recycled, they would be worth $11.5 billion.  A circular economy for electronics could reduce the costs for consumers 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.

Most importantly, reducing the need for mining will help to remove a source of funding for groups perpetuating inhumane practices. Without the promise of money and power, the exploitation of the resources and people of specific regions will be less attractive.

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 imports of US garbage. 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 are buying or disposing of electronics—your choice, however small it may seem, matters.      

LEARN MORE:

https://www.npr.org/2018/03/15/594062903/how-cobalt-metal-affects-big-tech-firms-like-apple

https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/03/06/591265523/cobalt-rare-and-everywhere

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127740457

https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-4-july-august/feature/us-recycling-system-garbage