Over the last decade, technology has become an integral part of our daily lives. From smartphones and tablets to smartwatches and virtual assistants, we have more devices than ever before. But what happens when these devices reach the end of their life? E-waste is becoming a significant problem, with discarded devices polluting the environment and wasting valuable resources. In this article, we’ll explore the growing e-waste problem and look at some of the solutions being proposed.
The E-Waste Problem
In 2019, a staggering 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was dumped worldwide, according to a UN Global E-waste Monitor report. This e-waste is made up of discarded devices such as smartphones, TVs, and washing machines. Within this e-waste was an estimated $57 billion worth of raw materials, greater than the GDP of many countries. Despite this, only 17.4% of the materials were recycled. The rest were either incinerated or left to rot in landfills, polluting the soil and water with toxic chemicals.
The e-waste problem is only set to get worse. The UN predicts that, on current trends, yearly e-waste generation will reach 74.7 million tonnes by 2030. This surge in e-waste is being driven by the continued growth of e-commerce and the sale of devices such as smartphones, which are often replaced every few years.
Mexico’s E-Waste Problem
Mexico is one of the largest producers of e-waste in Latin America, with an estimated 1.2 million tonnes of waste generated annually, and only 7% recycled. Discarded electronics pose a serious environmental threat as they release toxic chemicals into the air, soil, and water. In response, the Mexican government has established a national waste management program with specific guidelines for e-waste. Some Mexican start-ups are also trying to address the issue, with one company recycling e-waste into new construction materials.
Solutions to the E-Waste Problem
Many companies, from small start-ups to established tech giants, are working to address the e-waste problem. One such group is the Circular Electronics Partnership (CEP), which was established in 2021 to unite experts, business leaders, and global organizations in co-designing solutions for a ‘circular’ electronics industry. Together with 40 companies, the CEP produced a roadmap that identified the core barriers to sustainability faced by the industry and the pathways toward circularity.
The starting point for circular electronics industry is building circularity into product design so that reuse and refurbishment become commonplace. Recycling is often cited as the answer to e-waste, but change must begin much earlier in the value chain. The CEP identified this as the first pathway to a circular electronics industry.
Right to Repair
Governments are beginning to take notice of the right-to-repair movement, which argues that consumers have the right to repair electronic devices rather than being forced to throw them away. The EU Commission proposed a smartphone repair law that would demand improved battery longevity, better energy efficiency, and the availability of at least 15 different component parts to enable repairs for a minimum of 5 years after devices hit the market. Repairability labeling will also be introduced from 2025, so that consumers can consider the ease of repair when choosing their next phone or tablet. This shift away from ‘built-in obsolescence’ will require a shift in consumer behavior, too.
Fairphone, a Dutch smartphone manufacturer and social enterprise, is focused on fair and recycled materials. The company’s latest model, Fairphone 4, is modular and comprised of eight modules that can be easily repaired by customers, with guides and spare parts available on the website. Repairing phones has a small carbon footprint, and designing phones in a way that enables low-impact module exchange is crucial to reducing e-waste.
In conclusion, the e-waste problem is growing rapidly, with millions of tonnes of discarded devices polluting the environment and wasting valuable resources. However, there are solutions being proposed to tackle this issue, such as building circularity into product design, promoting the right-to-repair movement, and companies like Fairphone focusing on fair and recycled materials. Governments, businesses, and consumers all have a role to play in reducing e-waste and creating a more sustainable electronics industry. By working together, we can make a positive impact on the environment and our future.