The toxic waste problem that no one’s talking about
Plastic has helped improve every corner of our lives—from how we preserve food, tamper-proof our medication, pay for goods, and manage personal hygiene. Yet it has since become an environmental villain. It has polluted our planet, compromised our food chain, and put the health of the global community at risk. Consumers have wisened up to the ills of plastic and started trying to curtail its impact. But there’s another, more pernicious, kind of manmade waste that’s wielding damage on our planet, almost unnoticed.
Electronic waste—or e-waste—is arguably worse than plastic, producing tonnes of toxic waste every year and causing irreversible damage to the environment. At the end of 2022, it was predicted that as many as 2.13 billion PCs, tablets, and mobile phones were shipped worldwide. We’re producing electronic devices at alarming rates, with little thought given to their afterlife. Solving the problem doesn’t come down to one pinpointed action: We must reappraise how products are designed, how infrastructure and manufacturing systems are innovated, and how the general public is educated on the issue. Tech giants, consumers, and governmental bodies across the world all bear some responsibility and must be held accountable.
Without proper intervention, e-waste will spiral uncontrollably. Over the last eight years, there have been an estimated 420.3 million metric tons of e-waste produced around the world (equivalent to the weight of approximately 400 Boeing 757s). This figure is predicted to double by 2050.
These are alarming statistics. The issue is further compounded by a 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 behaviors: 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 to understand where e-waste eventually winds up once it’s discarded.
It’s vital to identify exactly who is responsible for this education. Recycling rose in public consciousness because governmental policies became easier to understand and thus adopt. Equally, brands soon followed suit by responding to consumer demand for more recyclable products and materials. Much, in fact, can be learned from existing recycling processes of plastic and cardboard. Collectively, brands, manufacturers, and policymakers could collaborate to create an implementable blueprint for e-waste recycling.
The electronics industry should take stock of existing initiatives like Race to Zero when pushing for change. Established by Best Buy, H&M Group, Ikea, Kingfisher, and Walmart, retailers are encouraged to set science-based climate targets and actionable plans for reducing emissions. The campaign is gaining momentum and, since launch, has gained pledges from millions of European retailers. It’s a strong illustration of how brands can come together to initiate conversations around their own industry’s practices and hold themselves accountable. Tech giants could model their own initiatives based on this framework, bringing together major players in their sector to pledge a similar reduction in e-waste or facilitate the creation of products fit for the circular economy.
Consumers constantly demand more of their electronics—each iteration needing to be smaller, lighter, faster, more efficient, and more aesthetically pleasing than before. Often, these shortcuts make devices harder to recycle at the end of their lives. To achieve a particular look, electronic goods are made up of several materials—like silver, platinum, and palladium—all glued together, rendering these near-impossible to dismantle and process into the relevant recycling streams. Rather, they are consigned to rot in landfills.
Modular electronics are a sustainable blueprint to follow. Fairphone and Shiftphone, for example, are designed with a cleaner carbon footprint; the end goal is that the devices become entirely recyclable. Yet this innovative concept is not being widely adopted because the technology of modular electronics delivers a markedly inferior user experience. Side-by-side, when comparing an Apple iPhone 13 against a Fairphone 4, the former has a 12.47% higher pixel density, 2.03x faster download rate, and is 51g lighter than its relatively clunky counterpart. Consumers largely do not want to compromise substance and form for sustainability. Currently, it’s challenging to create a fully recyclable phone or electronic device that can match the excellence and desirability of market leading electronics.
Governments must introduce policies that give more funding for organizations and companies working on sustainable designs that fulfill consumer expectations and tackle the problem of e-waste. To some degree, this is already happening. The UK government offered to invest up to £1 million in innovation projects that consider the sustainability of the entire production ecosystem. This, of course, is an incredibly modest amount, but it’s a start. In the U.S. the Biden administration announced $375 million in funding for new recycling, reuse, and waste prevention programs and initiatives.
To incentivize recycling of e-waste, new technology and methods must be introduced to make it easier and thus more appealing for both consumers and tech manufacturers. Post-consumer packaging presents an interesting model: the Digital Watermarks Initiative HolyGrail 2.0, for example, uses digital watermarks to improve the accuracy of sorting waste at scale. Provided that electronic goods are increasingly designed with mono-materials, a similar sorting system for electronic goods could radically optimize an otherwise unwieldy recycling process.
But even before those kinds of technologies are implemented, local infrastructure needs to be improved to help consumers easily recycle electronic goods as opposed to hoarding or unsafely discarding them. Financially incentivizing recycling facilities to collect unused electric devices could potentially address this problem. Currently in the U.S., the onus is on the consumer to find their local e-waste recycling facility through the Environmental Protection Agency. While helpful, simplifying the process could mean an increase in the electronic goods and materials entering the circular economy.
Promoting viable and non-hazardous ways of recycling e-waste is critical to reducing large quantities of wasted valuable materials. There are startups already making strides in this space. BlueOak, for example, develops distributed mini-refineries across the U.S. that extract precious minerals and rare earth elements from e-waste using environmentally sustainable methods. Redwood is another startup gaining traction. The company is localizing a global battery supply chain by producing anode and cathode components (key minerals in batteries) in the U.S., from as many recycled batteries as possible.
More than just recycling
Recycling is the last loop of the circular economy, but we should recognize it as only one part of a solution since it doesn’t fully undo the harm of manufacturing in the first place. Designers must figure out how to create products that are both beautiful and can endure far longer. Where that’s not possible, tech companies must make recyclability essential to devices.
All things considered, this is a chicken or egg scenario. Who starts the ball rolling on taking responsibility for e-waste? I believe that engineers and designers should focus on creating products that are ready for the circular economy, and not wait for legislation and compliance to mandate change. Companies have a responsibility to facilitate a more viable reuse of products, liberating functional components and valuable materials so that they continue to provide economic value in a circular economy.