We usually don’t question the life cycle of our waste. We have a basic understanding of landfills, and hope that recycling centres are making the most out of our plastics, cardboard and glass. But where do our electronics go?
Electronic waste, also known as e-waste, is the fastest growing problem worldwide. Approximately 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2021, which equates to more than 1000 laptops being thrown out every second. And this number is only expected to grow an additional 3 to 4% each year.
Recycling this waste is also not as simple as one might assume. Typically, electronics are not designed for easy recycling and contain harmful, toxic materials that require removal before the recycling process can begin. A meagre 17.4% of e-waste is properly recycled worldwide. Most countries lack electronic waste regulations, resulting in devices being dumped into landfill sites. Alternatively, rather than actually processing e-waste, electronic recycling establishments will sell it as a product to waste traders for export to developing countries, which generates a higher profit.
Often these developing countries lack the infrastructure and stability necessary in order to enforce effective health and safety and environmental laws, allowing workers and the environment to be exploited. The waste will end up in make-shift recycling operations, usually in peoples’ backyards where dangerous practices will be used to remove the metals in order to sell them. Some of these practices involve burning materials over fires to melt away plastics to access metals, or removing metals with using acids that will later be dumped into waterways.
Guiyu, China is recognized as theph e-waste capital of the world. Approximately 75% of households are involved in informal recycling practices as a means to source income. Informal e-waste recycling is also commonplace in countries such as Ghana, India, Nigeria and the Philippines. These practices are almost always at the cost of the health of workers and the sustainability of the environment. Regular contact and traces of heavy metals and toxins from e-waste lead to staggering amounts of birth defects and health compromissions of all ages. Furthermore, some of the waste is either dumped or can leak into communal water supplies and absorb into the soil, affecting the entirety of the community’s environment.
However, there’s an added phase to this harmful process. For example, if cell phones were to be recycled properly, we could reuse the precious materials. In 1 million cell phones there lies 24kg of gold, 16000kg copper and 350kg of silver—which are all easily recoverable and reusable materials. Failing to recycle these only means that new supplies have to be mined, which further harms our environment. It’s estimated that approximately $57 billion worth of these high-value materials were dumped or burned in 2019.
Nevertheless, there’s multiple barriers that prevent certain solutions that could curtail the mass generation of e-waste. One issue is having the right to repair electronics. Although repairing products could ultimately reduce the overall number of e-waste, it’s often not even an option. Certain products are protected by copyright, which prevents consumers from repairing their products without authorized repairer, which can be costly. Additionally, as mentioned prior, many products are not designed for recycling. Certain materials have toxic additives that would contaminate the recycling process and prevent it from being transformed into new electronic products.
But what is often overlooked is the additional cybersecurity threat that comes with e-waste. Without access to e-waste recycling opportunities, most electronics users will simply toss their electronics in the trash. Users may attempt to erase the data from their devices, however, it’s a complicated process to completely erase a hard drive. If not properly done, sensitive information is still accessible by unwanted parties and eventually be taken advantage of. This is why professional recycling firms are crucial for not only the effective and safe disposal of electronic devices, but also the protection of data from users.
In the United States, there are little to no federal laws that address the impacts and responsibilities of e-waste and recycling processes. The issue is left for each state to decide, with only half of them drafting their own laws to address the issue. Alternatively, the European Union has some of the strictest laws and regulations regarding e-waste and its sustainable disposal. However, until additional states follow suit and manufacturers rethink their designs, we can only expect this issue to intensify.