In a recent blog, I discussed digital technology’s contribution to the environmental apocalypse, with massive amounts of energy being used in three ways: (1) to manufacture digital technologies; (2) to operate them; and (3) to dispose of and replace them with newer versions.
Electronic waste (e-waste) occurs when repair of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is impossible or undesirable and where devices are discarded thoughtlessly. A 2020 estimate of the amount of e-waste produced in the world was 54 million metric tons, which amounts to 7.3 kg fo every person in the world. Who would have predicted that the figure would be so high? The amount is doubling every 16 years. Asia generates the greatest quantity, followed by the Americas and Europe, which also produces the most per person.
Causes are industrialization, urbanization, higher levels of disposable income, higher rates of using EEE, shorter life cycles, and lack of repair options. There is also uncertainty as to what one can and should do to dispose of devices responsibly. Even if attempts are made to recycle, devices are often mixed with plastic and metal waste making recycling more difficult and costlier.
The current documented collection and recycling rate of EEE is only 17%. Although some countries have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation, or regulation, enforcement is sporadic. E-waste contains many hazardous substances such as mercury and chlorofluorocarbons. The devices contain precious and critical metals that could be re-used if properly recycled. In 2019, global e-waste contained raw materials worth approximately USD$57 billion, which, if re-used, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from extraction and refinement of raw materials. Discarded refrigerators and air conditioners also contribute significantly to greenhouse gases.
For much more detail, including transboundary issues as well as the impact on the health of children and workers, the interested reader should access and download The Global E-waste Monitor 2020.
FOR THINKING AND WRITING AND DISCUSSING
What can you do to reduce the amount of e-waste? How can you help others to do the same?