by Jess Green, Business Development Sector Lead

Technology is becoming more integrated into every aspect of our lives. Electronic and electrical goods, from phones and computers to refrigerators and kettles, have become indispensable in modern societies. Meanwhile, the life span of devices is getting shorter—many products will be thrown away once their batteries die, to be replaced with new devices. Companies intentionally plan the uselessness of their goods by updating the design or software and discontinuing support for older models, so that now it is usually cheaper and easier to buy a new product than to repair an old one.

The estimated electronic waste every year is around 25m tonne. A record 54m tonnes of “e-waste” was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21% in five years, the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor report found.

Electronic devices are made of a complex mix of materials that include gold, silver, copper, platinum, and other valuable elements. But they often also contain toxic chemicals, and soaring production and waste damages human health and the environment and fuels the climate crisis. Much of the waste is dumped in landfills where toxic chemicals can leach from the e-waste and end up contaminating the water supply. Most recycling processes are hazardous and have serious health risks and are also labour intensive. This means they must be shipped to countries with low labour costs for recycling.

The reality is that, as a solution, recycling barely scratches the surface of the growing e-waste crisis. Also, what most don’t realize is that many “recyclers” actually just ship most of the e-waste abroad where, instead of being recycled, usable parts are repurposed, and minerals are extracted.

The sheer volumes of e-waste are impossible to cope with. We need to remember that recycling is still a removal from circulation, and therefore an implicit incentive to produce and buy new. The environmental impact of replacing a device, even if it is recycled after, remains significant. While recycling is useful, there is an urgent need to recognize the limits of electronics recycling and to look hard at the root of our growing e-waste problem to develop more effective approach.

So, what can be done?

  • Designing better products – To reduce e-waste, manufacturers need to design electronics that are safer, and more durable, repairable and recyclable. For example, biodegradable organic electronic materials or green electronics have been developed using proteins, carbohydrates, and biodegradable synthetic polymers. Many other alternatives are in the process of being identified.
  • The right to repair – it’s important to be able to repair and reuse the devices we have.
  • Extended Producer Responsibility – requiring companies that make products to be responsible for the management and disposal of them at the end of their lives. The idea is to turn waste materials into a resource for producing new products.