In the media

International E-Waste Day - no time to waste for enterprises to face up to a major problem

By Cath Everett


13 October 2023


PA Consulting's Beth Murphy, Waste and Circular Economy expert, discusses the issue of e-waste and how to tackle it in an article by Cath Everett in Diginomica.

Commenting on this, Beth says: "E-waste is a huge challenge and is arguably worse than plastic. The disposal of e-waste produces tonnes of toxic waste every year and causes irreversible damage to the environment. E-waste will spiral, and is spiralling, uncontrollably. Over the last eight years, there’ve been an estimated 420.3 million metric tons of e-waste produced around the world, and this figure is predicted to double by 2050."

She adds: "Another challenge relates to a general lack of understanding of just how detrimental e-waste can be to the environment. Although conscious consumption and waste consciousness are both growing trends in consumer retail, including in electronic goods, consumers remain generally ill-informed about this type of waste. The issue is driven by the lack of consumer education on everything from the lifecycle of electronic goods to the environmental damage caused. Part of the solution perhaps lies in addressing behaviours: consumers, for example, could be encouraged to keep their devices for longer, to invest in products that are more sustainable and easier to recycle, or be educated on where e-waste eventually ends up once it’s discarded."

When asked about shifting mindsets about e-waste, Beth explains that things are just as bad in the business world too: "Within the traditional business environment, employees expect the newest and most high-tech equipment. This means constant replacement of technology, often before it has reached end-of-life. Due to the rise in businesses providing IT – which is likely to have increased since hybrid working became the norm – employees now often own two or more separate laptops or mobile phones. There is a real need for a full mindset shift to reduce the amount of electronic equipment produced, used and disposed of."

Huge quantities of e-waste end up in landfill and Beth explains: "Despite attempts to monitor and control the disposal of e-waste such as the widely adopted WEEE regulations, we know that large amounts are exported to developing countries, incinerated, or sent to landfill, resulting in the likely contamination of soil, water and food."

Beth points to the need for suppliers to adopt more environmentally-friendly product design approaches: "There are some products, such as Fairphone and Shiftphone, which have been designed with a cleaner carbon footprint. The end goal is that the devices become entirely recyclable. However, this innovative concept is not being widely adopted today because the technology of modular electronics delivers a markedly inferior user experience. Consumers largely do not want to compromise substance and form for sustainability. To create a fully-recyclable phone or electronic device that can match the excellence and desirability of market leading electronics is a real challenge."

Beth explains that introducing repair schemes and return and recycle initiatives remains a more likely way forward for many businesses for the time being at least. Apple, for instance, has introduced a ‘self-service repair’ programme to enable customers to fix their own devices – although the technology’s design means it is currently only recommended for experienced technicians rather than everyday consumers.

She goes on to say that another possible approach for tech vendors when offering recycling services within the European Union is to apply the Digital Watermarks Initiative’s HolyGrail 2.0 technology to help improve accuracy when sorting large amounts of waste.

Beth concludes: “Much can be learned from existing recycling processes of plastic and cardboard. Recycling rose in public consciousness because governmental policies became easier to understand and thus adopt. Brands then soon followed suit by responding to consumer demand for more recyclable products and materials. So, there’s a real need for brands, manufacturers, and policymakers to come together and create a blueprint for e-waste recycling which can be easily implemented. Simplifying the process could mean an increase in the electronic goods and materials entering the circular economy.”

Read the full article in Diginomica

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