Far from appealing and trendy projects like carbon exchange or offsetting, Sustainability is also a matter of under-looked and partly ignored topics. And e-waste is one of them. Why?
Could it be because it asks us to choose between consumerism and sobriety? Or because finding value in waste is almost never considered by companies?
What is 100% sure though is that e-waste is going to be one of the biggest challenges of our century! Eco-Business wrote an excellent article a couple years ago about “Defusing the e-waste bomb in Asia”. This topic needs to be in the spotlight given the magnitude of the problem.
What is the situation in South East Asia? Is it the same everywhere? Is Singapore paving the way like in other fields (agri-tech, new sustainable tech, food waste…)? And most importantly, what is the risk of e-waste in the end?
According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020:
Electronic waste or e-waste describes all discarded electronic equipment and devices. It’s not only laptops & smartphones. E-waste also includes TV, DVD players, printers, machinery…
They can either be:
These different scenarii of end-of-life are covered by the 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), a key concept about waste and circularity. NEA’s section is available here to read more about it.
Visit Where to Recycle E-waste in Singapore to locate the nearest e-waste collection point near you.
E-waste isn’t always easy and convenient to recycle.
Local governments sometimes have e-waste collection days a few times a year, but that means that homeowners have to store the unwanted items in the meantime.
Several electronic stores will accept electronics for recycling at no cost (Best Buy and Staples). And several electronics companies accept their products for recycling, including Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, and Dell.
New usages for consumers (streaming, video content-based social networks) and corporations (5G, IOT, new wave of tech) are also massively contributing to increase e-waste “mathematically”.
Indeed, new usages mostly imply better performance and up-to-date equipment, meaning the lifespan of connected devices dropped. To show this phenomenon, you can check the average lifespan of equipment.
In the 90’s, devices were supposed to live for 20–25 years, today, the average is around 4–5 years. With actual gaps between consumer goods (under 3 years for some smartphones for instance) and company machinery (around 7–8 years).
The growing trends of new tech is probably going to make this lifespan shorter in the near future, hence the need to take action NOW. Especially in Asia, where digitalisation & middle-class development is growing way faster than in other areas of the world.
More sophisticated tech also implies devices that are harder to recycle.
Nano alloys, the blending of tiny portions of minerals on some motherboards, make recycling very hard and costly, even if you have the entire process.
You have 0.4g of gold in a random smartphone but to get it back you will need a tremendous amount of energy to recover it. This could illustrate the vicious link between Mineral resources depletion & Energy Consumption.
E-waste comes with a whole bunch of nasty consequences. The main issues revolve around Environment, Human Health & Social trouble:
Here below are some examples to show the impact of e-waste on the planet:
As mentioned earlier, toxic gas emissions are obviously bad for our health. Especially, mercury, lead, cadmium or polybrominated flame retardants can induce negative health effects on human health (brain, heart, skeleton). It can also considerably affect the nervous and reproductive systems of the human body, leading to disease and birth defects.
Plastic burnt in the process won’t make it better for sure either…
To read more about human health problems due to e-waste, you can refer to this article on the “disaster in the making” of e-waste-induced illnesses in China.
These problems mentioned earlier lead conclusively to social trouble: fight for money made of illegal recycling and resources recovering. In some countries you have parallel economies out of any government control that are thriving. Add on this the tensions on markets and supply chain disruption — that are not due to e-waste management — and you may have a dangerous cocktail ready to explode.
The situation in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, speaks for itself, with kids being intoxicated and stolen from their family to take care of dumped e-waste. You may read this article to understand more about what happens over there.
To finish this explanation of issues due to e-waste improper management, it is interesting to focus on the money value lost in e-waste.
It’s not a problem per se though, and it might even be part of the solution. The value of raw materials in the global e-waste generated in 2019 is equal to approximately $57 billion USD. And that’s the number stated in the 2020 Global e-waste monitor report.
Another number to understand estimated by Statista is that a single metric ton of circuit boards usually includes 40–800 times the gold ore concentrations that are mined in the US. The number is 30 to 40 times for copper.
All this gives perspective.
Some solutions can be briefly mentioned. The order is on purpose.
Decreasing e-waste will ultimately lead to the necessity of rethinking an entire model and a change of mindset overall. Quick fix measures won’t be the long-term solution!