E-waste: It’s everyone’s problem

With electronics now the world’s fastest-growing solid-waste stream, it's time to get serious about e-waste. What’s driving the upsurge? How big is the issue? And what role can the circular economy play in digging us out of the problem?
Worker at waste site

If you’re like me – you have A LOT of discarded electronics sitting around gathering dust. My original iPod and other versions that no longer work. Multiple laptops. So many chargers I’ve lost count and a couple of old phones that had zero resell/trade-in value. And this is just what’s sitting in my office.

As the number of connected devices continues to grow, so does the problem of e-waste, particularly with a tech-hungry population that regularly upgrades to the next generation device. This cycle of consumption has made electronics waste the world’s fastest-growing solid-waste stream.

According to the latest Global E-waste Monitor report issued by the ITU for the year 2019, the world generated 53.6Mt (metric tons) of e-waste, growing by 21 from the last report (2014) and expected to reach 74.7Mt by 2030. Growth in e-waste exceeded the previous forecast of 52.2Mt by two years.

What’s driving this growth? Higher consumption rates of electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few repair options. E-waste by region is shown, along with the top 10 e-waste generating countries.

E-waste collected graph

What exactly does this all this mean and why should anyone care?

E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury, brominated flame retardants (BFR), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), that, when improperly disposed, can be environmentally harmful.

Additionally, e-waste is considered an “urban mine,” as it contains several precious, critical, and other non-critical metals that, if recycled, can be used as secondary materials.

According to the ITU report, the value of raw materials in global e-waste generated in 2019 is equal to approximately 57 billion USD, with iron, copper, and gold contributing the bulk of this value.

Unfortunately, only 17.4% or 9.3Mt of generated e-waste was collected and recycled in 2019 –down from 20% in 2016 and still a long way from the target of 30% by 2023.

Collection and recycling rates by region are shown below. Croatia had the highest recycling rate at 75% followed by Austria at 74%, while China – the largest producer of e-waste was 15.3%.

E-waste generated graph

While technological innovation is a great thing, it also leads to shorter lifetimes and increased obsolescence of electronics. This is typically due to the fact that the hardware is no longer compatible with updated software. Known as “marketing-induced obsolescence” this tactic encourages the purchase of new models that may offer only minor improvements on existing models leading to a phenomenon known as “abandonware.”

And with so many of the applications of these devices supported by the cloud, once disconnected they become useless, cannot be remotely managed and worse, will not be able to function as a stand-alone product.

The importance of extending product lifetimes and the ability to create circular business models are critical to reducing or stemming the growth of e-waste.

 The role of the circular economy

In a circular economy, the intent is to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

In this scenario, recycling is considered the final option. Priority is placed on improving lifecycle management of electronics, through source reduction of materials used; by increasing repair and refurbishment and by extending the life of products, the total quantity of waste that needs to be managed globally can be reduced.

Circular economy diagram

Sadly, repair options for many electronics remain limited, either because the design does not allow easy repair or because repair costs are high compared to buying a new product. As such, some markets such as the EU have adopted new Right to Repair standards, which means that from 2021 firms will have to make appliances longer-lasting, and will have to supply spare parts for machines for up to 10 years. At present, there is also a proposal on the table to have the same rules apply to phones, tablets and laptops, which will become increasingly more important with growth in IoT and 5G.

E-waste and telecom

IoT and 5G networks are likely to be the largest contributors toward e-waste going forward. In the case of IoT, semiconductors are being added to products that previously had none and at the same time shorting the life of a device as more computing is added.

A good example is the wearables segments in which products are designed to fail when the battery dies. Does the world really need a Bluetooth-connected basketball or toothbrush? Perhaps. But the real problem lies in product design in the sense that enabling a consumer to replace the battery would likely reduce the performance of the product.

In the case of 5G, many of the millions (if not billions) of 3G/4G devices will not be upgradeable to support 5G services. According to industry forecasts, the number of 5G subscribers is expected to grow from less than 200 million at the end of 2020 to as many as 2.8 billion by 2025. While the number of IoT devices is expected to grow from 10.7 billion connections to 24.6 billion by 2025, according to GSMA.

How do we fix this problem?

The first step is awareness and access. Cities need to make their citizens more aware of the hazards of e-waste. The second step is to make it easier to dispose of their e-waste – either through trade-in programs or easily accessible e-waste recycling centers.

Finally, industries themselves have a key role to play. The importance of extending product lifetimes and the ability to create circular business models are critical to reducing or stemming the growth of e-waste. This can be achieved through a number of measures such as eco-design, energy labeling, and by extended producer responsibility legislation. Other opportunities include the necessity of interoperability specifications that are open and extensible, allowing devices to work regardless of the manufacturer. Wi-Fi is a perfect example, allowing devices to work long after their “expected” lifetime.

Half the world needs connectivity and the other half has more than they can use. Isn’t it time the industry puts systems in place that are convenient to enable the circular economy and the redeployment of technology to markets and consumers that can use them?

Remember: One man's trash is another man's treasure.

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