The issue of old and outdated electronics has culminated into a full-blown electronic waste crisis. As new models of phones, laptops, televisions, tablets, and other electronics release annually, consumers toss their older models to the tune of 53.6 million tons in 2019, with only 17.4 percent being collected and properly recycled. An increase from 44 million tons in 2014 according to the United Nations (U.N) Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 report, which also projects e-waste to reach 75 million tons by 2030. To provide some context, the World Bank estimates that total global waste has surpassed 2.01 billion tons yearly, making e-waste responsible for a mere fraction (2.3 percent). However, what differentiates e-waste from other waste streams is its contribution to toxic heavy metals. E-waste supplies two-thirds of the heavy metals sitting in American landfills.
Heavy metals such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, indium, lead, mercury, nickel, and thallium can be found in electronics and are associated with short and long-term public health concerns. These heavy metals can leach into our surface water or underground water reservoirs, soil, and the air (if burned or broken apart). Heavy metals are persistent in the environment and bioaccumulate, increasing their foothold in our food supply. Disposing of electronics not only poses a problem to our health but also wastes valuable resources.
In preparation for the 2020 Olympics, Japan mined 6 million mobile phones and 72,000 tons of e-waste to create 5,000 gold, silver, and bronze medals. The amount of precious metals sitting in landfills from e-waste is staggering. The Environmental Protection Agency stated, "One metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the US.” The U.N. estimates that when you add up the circuit boards, phones, and other electronics, $57 billion of raw materials are dumped each year. Not only is it cheaper to mine precious metals from e-waste for reuse, but it is environmentally degrading to mine for new sources of metals. Modern industrial gold mining "generates about 20 tons of toxic waste for every 0.333-ounce gold ring.” Companies mining for gold dump close to 180 million tons of toxic waste into water bodies annually, harming wildlife and drinking water sources.
In 2011 35 percent of U.S. adults owned a smartphone. By 2016 that number had reached 77 percent. The Pew Research Center found that global smartphone ownership is rapidly growing,
with 5 billion people owning smartphone devices as of 2019. As emerging economies become richer, more of their citizens will demand material goods associated with advanced economies, including smartphones, laptops, and other electronics. With this insatiable demand for electronic devices, a robust recycling infrastructure will be necessary to avoid exacerbating the e-waste crisis. Unfortunately, the U.N. recorded only 17.4 percent (raw material value of $10 billion) of electronics being properly recycled.”
The barriers to increasing recycling rates are multi-faceted and unlike paper or plastic products, there is not an abundance of e-waste containers that are easily accessible. In Washington D.C., residents can attend weekly eCYCLE Collection Events to dispose of their e-waste. Still, this runs into another barrier, behavioral issues. Research conducted by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) noted that forgetfulness and busy schedules as the second biggest barrier to recycling electronics. WRAP also pinpointed a lack of education and attitudes for the growing gap of wasted versus recycled e-waste.
Planned obsolescence—where companies intentionally limit the lifespan of their products—is another e-waste contributor, which forces consumers to buy brand new models. “Built-in obsolescence increased the proportions of all units sold to replace defective appliances from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 8.3 percent in 2012.” Although companies like Apple are now receiving lawsuits for such practices, it is still widespread and effective in getting consumers to discard and buy new.
A Circular Economy
A circular economy can replace the current make, use, waste system for a more sustainable make, use, and repurpose format. Building an economy that encourages the reuse and recycling of existing resources could create a $4.5 trillion windfall and slash global carbon emissions by 39 percent and ease pressure on virgin materials by 28 percent by 2032. Realizing this vision would save precious resources from landfills, protect the public from harmful metals, and help the world achieve the ambitious climate change goals of the Paris Agreement. Scaling the circular economy—the globe is currently at 8.6 percent circularity—we must encourage corporations, small businesses, and consumers to avoid the landfill.