Addressing The E-Waste Epidemic

End-of-life electronics are now the world’s fastest-growing source of waste

According to a UN-backed study, in 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated globally. The weight of this e-waste is equivalent to about 4,500 Eiffel towers, making clear the size of the problem at hand for both consumers and businesses alike. Unfortunately, only 8.9 million tonnes of this e-waste (about 20 percent) was documented as collected and recycled in 2016, with most of it ending up in landfills.

As you might imagine, e-waste on this scale is affecting the environment adversely. E-waste that does not get recycled generally ends up in a landfill where its toxic components (materials like mercury, lead, nickel, barium, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and chromium) begin leaching into the landfill site, air and surrounding groundwater as the plastic or metal housing of the electronic item is sufficiently crushed by other trash. These materials are known to be dangerous to humans, animals and plants.

Until China brought a halt to the practice on January 1, 2018, it was standard for developed countries to ship much of their e-waste to the country for processing. Even though China has largely shut its doors, there are plenty of countries in the developing world that are still wide open for e-waste business. These electronic graveyards are clustered in a few western African nations and Asian countries including India, Pakistan and Vietnam. In the developing countries that process e-waste, laws governing environmental safety and human health and safety are minimal to non-existent.

Sobering or sustainable?

Reflecting on the sobering statistics for e-waste naturally brings to mind the question of the long-term sustainability of disposable electronics. In essence, is the manufacturing of electronics with a limited lifespan a business model that is sustainable? The short answer is yes, but only if a significant portion of those items are recycled responsibly.

There is a rather lengthy list of benefits to recycling old electronics safely and securely. They range from the obvious — recovery of valuable raw materials and resources and the creation of jobs — to benefits that may be considered socio-politically altruistic, like removing toxic materials from the waste stream and reducing the global waste trade.

Recovering valuable and rare Earth Metals

Of the 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste that were generated globally in 2016, it’s estimated that, if recovered, raw materials from that total, including metals such as gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium, would be worth an estimated US$64.6 billion.

Recovering valuable resources is a major benefit of recycling old electronics versus mining new resources. Rüdiger Kühr of United Nations University (UNU) says that to mine one gram of gold, companies need to move a ton of ore. The same amount of gold can be found in just 41 mobile phones in a process called urban mining.

Extracting rare earth metals through recycling can also help reduce geopolitical issues associated with rare earth trade disputes. The rare earth metals are 17 elements with magnetic and conductive properties that are used extensively in electronics and weaponry. They are not often found in economically exploitable concentrations and mining them is environmentally hazardous. By extracting more rare earth metals through recycling as opposed to mining, we benefit not only from their monetary value but also from knowing that we’ve helped make the world a safer place.

Creating Jobs

Providing jobs through recycling e-waste is one of the most visible benefits of recycling old electronics. The jobs are created in several areas: through the collection, processing and preparation of e-waste; through the creation of new electronics items from the reused and recycled parts; and through the reselling and reusing of older electronics parts. One study by the National Recycling Coalition found that for every job in recycling collection in California, eight jobs are created through manufacturing the recovered material into a new product.

Removing Toxic Materials

Removing toxic materials from the waste stream is extremely important when recycling old electronics. Mercury, for example, is a neurotoxin and a component of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Improper disposal of CFLs can result in the leaching of mercury into the environment; fortunately, 98 percent of a CFL bulb or tube can be recycled and recovered, which reduces contamination of the environment.

Reduce the Global Waste Trade

The global waste trade is the international trade between countries for treatment, disposal or recycling of waste. E-waste is shipped from developed countries to developing nations for recycling in order to avoid more stringent regulations at home and to take advantage of cheaper labour. By recycling old electronics responsibly in our home country, we make sure that any toxic waste in them is not contributing to environmental or health problems elsewhere in the world. Recycling locally also eliminates the need to use large freighters to ship materials abroad, reducing carbon emissions.

The End Result Can Begin With Small Steps

Business leaders are finding they can reap the benefits of recycling electronics by focusing their efforts on a few key areas within their company.

A sample checklist could look like this:

1. Implement an electronics recycling program at your company immediately. Don’t worry if it’s not a sophisticated program at the start. Something is better than nothing.

2. Advertise and market your recycling program to employees, customers and vendors to encourage participation. If you’re collecting enough items, the payback from the recovery of valuable metals can be significant. Plus, the positive green publicity is nothing but a clear win.

3. Consider holding a charity fundraising electronics recycling event in your community for people who are not employees, customers or vendors. Again, the positive publicity you will accrue can be substantial and there can be a significant payback from the metals that are recovered.

4. Realize that there could be tax benefits from state governments and federal agencies for corporate recycling programs. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, gives businesses a depreciation credit for recycling.

While it may seem like an enormous undertaking to get started with an electronics recycling program if your company is not yet doing anything in this area, small efforts can make a difference. Altruistic or not, your efforts in helping to tackle the global e-waste problem will contribute to a better earth and economy. And that’s something to celebrate.

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