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  • Rovindu Ambagolla

Triple Bottom Tuesday >>> Garbage of the 21st Century - Electronic Waste and its Repercussions

Picture Source: India Times website

Every year, 1.6 billion new smartphones are sold to consumers worldwide. We have all been there, the excitement of using a brand new phone, fanning over all the new “life changing” features that we didn't know we needed. But caught up in the excitement of it all, we forget about one small detail. What on earth will become of my old phone if I buy a new one?

These older devices are most likely thrown away and end up as “e-waste”. This is the term used for old, discarded electronic appliances such as phones, televisions , computers etc. In 2019 we produced more than 53 million metric tons of e-waste, and in the US alone more than 400,000 phones are thrown away every day. The value of recycling these materials is estimated to be an astounding $53 million. However, very little of the materials found in these devices are actually recycled, with most just ending up in landfills.

Consumers and companies feeding into this constant cycle of make, use and dispose are creating worldwide shortages of key materials which are needed to make these devices in the first place. It is estimated that if this trend continues, 6 of the materials needed to make smart devices will run out in the next 100 years.

Most mobile devices and other electronic items end up in landfills in either West Africa or Asia, and these landfills can have catastrophic effects on local communities and the environment because of the materials inside these electronics. Electronics contain materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic which are toxic and can cause severe health repercussions. Electronic waste is expected to increase by 33% in the next four years and these harmful practices of shipping waste to poorer, developing countries is not likely to end. Interpol recently conducted an investigation into e-waste and concluded that one in three of the containers leaving the European Union that were checked had illegal e-waste on board.

Picture source: Britannica website

However the issue runs deeper than just not recycling. Many manufacturers of smartphones and electronics purposefully make sure that devices are built to last consumers a limited time frame, so that they will come back to repurchase the newer models sooner rather than later. The whole business model encourages consumers to be wasteful, which ultimately leads to more mining and pollution.

How can we move away from producing so much e-waste?

There are numerous ways that this issue is being tackled. For one, in 2019 the EU issued the “Right to Repair” standards which effectively means manufacturers need to make their products last longer, and will have to supply spare parts for machines up to 10 years.

There are more outside the box solutions being tested as well. Companies like Fairphone are selling phones that you can upgrade completely by yourself! Whenever you need a new part, you can simply remove the old module and insert the new one without having to buy an entirely new phone. The company even goes out of their way to make their phones out of 40% recycled material.

Consumers can play a crucial part in helping reduce global e-waste levels. By showing interest for more sustainable phones and electronics and supporting devices based on such concepts even at premium price points, this will slowly start to build a demand for such products whilst simultaneously helping companies pursuing sustainability like Fairphone. This will then force major tech giants to move with the trend and offer more sustainable products themselves. So change actually starts with us, and it can start today instead of waiting for companies to finally get around to the idea of sustainability. We can change them.

E-waste is something that we should all be concerned about, because we are all part of the new generation that depends heavily on electronics. This could be the first step that allows us to transition completely into a truly sustainable society and help us understand the value of recycling and reusing.

October 12th 2021 | 5:00 PM

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