Rapid innovation and lowering costs have dramatically increased access to electronic products and digital technology, with many benefits. This has led to an increase in the use of electronic devices and equipment. The unintended consequence of this is a ballooning of electronic and electrical waste: e-waste.
It is difficult to gauge how many electrical goods are produced annually, but just taking account of devices connected to the internet, they now number many more than humans. By 2020, this is projected to be between 25- 50 billion, reflecting plummeting costs and rising demand.
E-waste is now the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. Some forms of it have been growing exponentially. The UN has called it a tsunami of e-waste. It is estimated this waste stream reached 48.5 million tonnes in 2018. This figure is expected to almost triple if nothing changes. Globally, society only deals with 20% of e-waste appropriately and there is little data on what happens to the rest, which for the most part ends up in landfill, or is disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions.
Yet e-waste is worth at least $62.5 billion annually, which is more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of most countries. In fact, if e-waste was a single nation, it’s GDP would be on a par with that of Kenya. Furthermore, 123 countries have less GDP than the global pile of electronic waste. In the right hands, however, it could be worth considerably more.
Changes in technology such as cloud computing and the internet of things (IoT) could hold the potential to “dematerialize” the electronics industry. The rise of service business models and better product tracking and takeback could lead to global circular value chains. Material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential. If the sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide.
A new vision for the production and consumption of electronic and electrical goods is needed. It is easy for e-waste to be framed as a post-consumer problem, but the issue encompasses the lifecycle of the devices everyone uses. Designers, manufacturers, investors, traders, miners, raw material producers, recyclers, consumers, policymakers and others have a crucial role to play in reducing waste, retaining value within the system, extending the economic and physical life of an item, as well as its ability to be repaired, recycled and reused. The possibilities are endless.
This is an inflection point in history and represents an unparalleled opportunity for global businesses, policymakers and workers worldwide. Those who can rethink the value chain for electronic goods and prioritize dematerialization and closed loop systems (which means reducing reliance on primary resources), could have an incredible advantage. Innovative products and services do not have to mean more e-waste; they can mean a lot less.
The prevailing “take, make and dispose” model has consequences for society, a negative impact on health and contributes to climate change. It is time for a system update. We need a system that functions properly – in which the circular economy replaces the linear.
In the short-term, electronic waste remains a largely unused, yet growing, valuable resource. Nearly all of it could be recycled. Urban mining, where resources are extracted from complex waste streams, can now be more economically viable than extracting metal ores from the ground. It is largely less energy intensive. E-waste can be toxic, is not biodegradable and accumulates in the environment, in the soil, air, water and living things. It can also have an adverse impact on health. Children and women are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of improper e-waste management.
It is time to reconsider e-waste, re-evaluate the electronics industry and reboot the system for the benefit of industry, consumer, worker, health of humankind and the environment. The incredible opportunities here are also aligned to the globe’s “just transition” to environmental sustainability and to shaping a future that works for all in the circular economy.