How We’re E-Wasting Ourselves Closer to a Climate Crisis

Keeping up with electronics, their upgrades, and their corporeal fragility can feel like a full-time job – for some, it’s literally a full-time job. 

Back in 1975, when the first home computer model became available, it came in a kit that you assembled at home. (Imagine if you had to do that today… we’d have a lot more computer geniuses or a lot less people with home computers.)

The makers of that model kit probably never considered for a moment what the world would be doing with its electronic waste 45 years later. We can assume that neither did the inventors of the first laptop, window A/C unit, or earbud headphones. 

But with our increasing usage and availability of low-priced, short-term, or downright disposable technology, certain global watchdog groups have formed to track how we’re dealing with our electronic waste (anything with batteries or a plug) and what impact those dealings are having on the world at large.

And – no surprise here – it’s not great.

A group called the Global E-Waste Monitor – supported by the United Nations University, International Telecommunications Union, International Solid Waste Association, World Health Organization, and UN Environment Program – only released their first comprehensive report in 2014

Where We’ve Been and Where We Are

In that year, a recorded 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste was produced, comprised of lamps, screens, small IT devices (phones, PCs, printers), small and large household appliances (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, electric shavers, dryers, ovens, toasters, etc.), and large freezing and cooling machines like refrigerators. 

In 2016, when the next report came out, we were up to 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste. 

Recently, the group’s report for 2019 was published… and globally, we produced 21% more e-waste than five years ago, weighing in at 53.6 million metric tons. The top waste-offenders were Asia, the United States, and Europe (although Europe did recycle their e-waste at the highest rate – 42.5%.)

The same report projected we’d reach 74 million metric tons of e-waste in 2030.

If that happens, e-waste will have become the fastest growing stream of domestic waste, propelled mainly by shorter life cycles, more expensive repairs, and faster upgrades. Think about reports about tech companies deliberately slowing down older models to encourage upgrades, or even how the rise of environmentally sustainable appliances have encouraged people to toss their former models. 

It makes sense that we’ve had a harder time catching on to the need to recycle electronics – some of us are still having a hard time recycling plastic and paper, and those initiatives have been much more present in the public eye for much longer. 

Plus, most of us don’t handle throwing away our refrigerators, or have any idea what happens to an out-of-date laptop when we trade it in for a newer model. (For the record, only about 17.4% of 2019’s e-waste was recycled. Where the rest of it ends up is largely undocumented.)

But e-waste is a problem for different reasons: what the stuff is made of is more toxic than your standard water bottle. 

E-Waste is Made of These

While e-waste contains plenty of toxic chemicals (more on that in a moment), there are also a lot of valuable metals that aren’t being utilized when e-waste gets junked. Metals like gold, silver, copper, and platinum are largely being left on these devices when they’re discarded. 

E-waste with recoverable materials that’s been discarded or incinerated rather than recycled is estimated to be worth $57 billion USD annually.

And the materials in e-waste that aren’t valuable? Well, it turns out they’re directly harmful. Mercury, brominated flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons, and hydrochlorofluorocarbons are toxic not only to humans, but to the environment. 

When they end up in landfills or toxic waste sites, broken and exposed, they seep into the soil, into our waterways, and travel from there into the air. 50 metrics tons of mercury and 71 metric kilotons are found annually in undocumented e-waste flows. 

In fact, last year, 98 metric tons of C02-equivalents were released into the atmosphere from improperly discarded refrigerators, air conditioning units, and other freezing mechanisms, which contributes to the overall effect of global warming… and is even more prevalent as the Earth continues to warm, since we’ll be using more air conditioning.

And the more we mine for and recreate the valuable materials we’re discarding, the more greenhouse gases we emit in the process.

In short?

The whole thing is a mounting mess.

So what can we do to partake in electronic usage safely?

Consider a few points…

  • Buy used
  • Buy refurbished
  • Repair instead of replace
  • Wait to upgrade unless you need it
  • Donate your gently-used electronics to charities
  • Research the places where you take your electronics to get recycled
  • Never throw used electronics in the trash
  • Write to your local government to encourage them to develop a plan for dealing with this crisis. Only 78 countries so far have covered e-waste handling in policy, legislation, and regulation. It’s totally possible your region of the world doesn’t have a clue what to do, or hasn’t considered its harms.
  • Start your own neighborhood initiative! Work with a local certified electronics recycler to help give them what they need.

This is a global issue – it needs a global answer.

But as with every movement, it starts locally.

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