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Addressing the World’s E-Waste Issues

Feb. 24, 2021
As e-waste continues to head toward the world’s landfills and keeps on increasing, the push is on to recycle and reuse more end-of-life electronic products.

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Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) has become indispensable in modern societies and is enhancing living standards, but its production and usage can be resource-demanding. After its use, EEE is disposed of, generating an “e-waste” stream that contains hazardous and valuable materials.

EEE includes a wide range of products with circuitry or electrical components with a power or battery supply, according to The Global E-Waste Monitor, a report produced annually by United Nations University and other international organizations.

Almost any household or business use products like basic kitchen appliances, toys, tools to music and ICT items, such as mobile phones and laptops. EEE is becoming increasingly used in transport, health, security systems and generators of energy such as photovoltaics.

“Traditional products, such as clothes and furniture, are often equipped with electrical components, and consequently are increasingly contributing to the global e-waste generated,” the report notes. “More and more EEE is also employed in the expanding sector of the Internet of Things (IoT), such as sensors or devices pertaining to the concept of the ‘smart home’ or ‘smart cities.’”

Tons and Tons of E-Waste

In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste, or an average of 16 lb per person. “The electronic waste generated annually is worth more than $62.5 billion,” Transparency Market Research points out in its new report, “Electronics Recycling Market 2021: Newest Industry Data, Future Trends And Forecast.” “[That’s] is more than the gross domestic products (GDPs) of most nations.”

E-waste has become one of the leading environmental threats, the research firm adds, and it pollutes water, soil and air.

“Electronic waste is a highly toxic substance that contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and various other harmful substances. When electronic waste comes directly in contact with nature, it can destroy ecological balance. Such factors are likely to stimulate growth of the global electronics recycling market in the years to come.”

Moving the Needle

Currently, the World Economic Forum (WEF) says that just about 35% of e-waste is recycled in the U.S. This number has remained low because consumers and businesses don’t always know where to recycle their discarded products and wind up throwing some or all of them into the trash.

“If electronic devices decompose in landfills, hazardous compounds can leach into groundwater, including lead used in older circuit boards, mercury found in early LCD screens and flame retardants in plastics,” WEF points out. “This process poses health risks to people and wildlife.”

Recycling electronics isn’t easy. Disassembling electronics for repair or material recovery is expensive and labor-intensive, WEF says, noting that some recycling companies have illegally stockpiled or abandoned e-waste. For example, one U.S. warehouse was referred to as an “an environmental disaster” when 8,000 tons of lead-filled tubes from old TVs were discovered in the facility.

The good news is that U.S. households are producing less e-waste, WEF reports, thanks to more compact product designs and digital innovation. For example, a smartphone serves as an all-in-one phone, camera, MP3 player and portable navigation system, while flat-panel TVs are about 50% lighter than large-tube TVs and don’t contain any lead.

“But not all innovations have been beneficial. To make lightweight products, manufacturers miniaturized components and glued parts together, making it harder to repair devices and more expensive to recycle them,” WEF points out. “Lithium-ion batteries pose another problem: They are hard to detect and remove, and they can spark disastrous fires during transportation or recycling.”

Turning Waste into a Resource

By re-envisioning waste as a resource, WEF says efforts focused on recycling e-waste could help reduce the environmental and other threats associated with end-of-life electronics. “Government, industry, and consumers all have roles to play,” it says. “Progress will require designing products that are easier to repair and reuse, and persuading consumers to keep their devices longer.”

Enacting responsive e-waste laws and setting up more convenient, certified recycling locations, may also help reduce the amount of EEE that goes into the world’s landfills. “With retooled operations, recyclers can recover more valuable materials from the e-waste stream,” WEF concludes. “Steps like these can help balance our reliance on electronic devices with systems that better protect human health and the environment.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.

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