When it comes to e-waste, the world’s got problems. But the mismanagement of electronic materials has the potential to be revolutionised with a circular approach and a global vision.
At some point the device you are reading this article on will be thrown away. Your trusted smartphone, tablet or computer is going to become e-waste. The same fate awaits your favourite headphones, speakers, video game consoles and household appliances. Disposing of electronics in a way that is safe for us and our environment has become a major problem all over the world, and the use of electronic equipment continues to rise.
It isn't a challenge confined to a certain location, but instead one that reflects our interlinked, global economy. When looking for solutions, we have to keep this cross-border perspective in mind - an approach promoted by Dr Berrin Tansel of the Florida International University in her 2016 paper on the global challenge of e-waste, who RESET talked to for this article.
Why Worry About E-Waste?
Aside from simply more people having access to electronics, the things we buy are breaking more quickly than ever (ever heard of a thing called planned obsolescence?), or we’re more likely to replace them whenever a new shiny upgrade is released. Dr Tansel's number one example is mobile phones. Over 10 different model-types have been introduced into the market in less than 20 years as indestructible brick-like contraptions evolved into smartphones.
Why not simply find a way to reuse materials in broken or ‘old’ products? Many countries now have recycling programmes to deal with our plastic, paper and metal waste. However, as reported by the UN University, of the 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste generated globally by 2016, only 20 per cent was recycled through appropriate channels.
Why’s that? Well, Dr Tansel suggests there is a “lack of infrastructure for collection and separation of different types of e-waste”, combined with “design improvements that increase marketability and durability of high tech products” that make it difficult to separate components and recover materials.
E-waste is being created everywhere. In 2016 Oceania is thought to have produced the greatest amount of e-waste per inhabitant, followed by Europe and the Americas. Asia produced by far the most e-waste but came in behind the other regions on a per capita basis. Africa produced the least on both measures. But where e-waste is produced is not where it stays. In her analysis of the cross-border e-waste shipping trends, Dr Tansel reports large quantities of e-waste are transported globally to areas that are highly populated, where cheap labour is available and/or where strict environmental regulations don’t exist.
The map below was developed by Dr Tansel based on information provided in the following sources: E-waste flows and recycling locations: Lundgren, 2012; Chen et al., 2010; Lewis, 2011; UNEP, 2013; World population density map: Worldometers, 2015
© Cross boundary transport of e-waste to major disposal and recycling locations transposed on a population density map.
“The global e-waste trade value chain has created the emergence of local enterprises as well as uncontrolled processing and materials recovery operations which contribute to the deterioration of the soil and water quality,” says Dr Tansel. She suggests this “creates environmental problems and health risk concerns at these locations.” In some extreme cases, the pollution caused by abandoned or improperly managed electronic devices and equipment can even make these locations unsuitable for human habitation. Better recycling systems would alleviate a grave injustice for people living in areas where e-waste ends up - and these systems would be profitable too. The UN University suggests current e-waste streams are wasting valuable and scarce resources, with more than EUR 55 billion in recoverable materials potentially being missed out on up to 2016.
Dr Tansel agrees the market for recycled materials is gradually increasing but suggests major challenges for managing e-waste still remain at global scale. One of these is the “lack of accounting mechanisms for cross boundary transport between countries.” She thus suggests that a global scale accountability infrastructure is necessary for e-waste management that would oversee the “quantification, transport, recycling and disposal of e-waste.” Dr Tansel believes that without this global approach, increased regulatory requirements in developed nations are creating bottle necks for economically feasible and environmentally sound management options for e-waste. This has helped create the cross border movement of e-waste.
Effective E-Waste Management Needs Global Accountability and Circular Solutions
The current treatment of our old electronic goods is both hazardous and a waste of resources. But how to address this lack of effective management? Dr Tansel says in locations where operational e-waste management programmes have been implemented, management of the discarded products occurs by placing the responsibility either on manufactures or consumers. This is a start. But to push beyond just local systems, decision makers should be promoting the integration of e-waste into a circular economy - an approach that aims to maintain the value in products for as long as possible and eliminate waste.
Circular economy approaches don’t only favour collection and recycling, but come from policy measures promoting the reuse, repair, redistribution, refurbishment or remanufacture of consumer electronics before recycling of materials even comes into play. What would help is if countries were to implement legislation to promote circular economy models in which e-waste is treated as a resource rather than waste. Then, when it's time to recycle, efficient management systems need to be in place – all over the world.