Repair, recycle or rethink: addressing the e-waste problem
In recent years, campaigners have worked hard to spread awareness about the impact that plastic waste has on the planet. This has resulted in significant changes across policy, business and consumer culture. But all this while, we’ve been ignoring another, equally significant issue: electronic waste. In the last 8 years, we produced 420.3 million metric tonnes of the stuff. By 2050, we are looking at double this figure. Barely any of it is being recycled and all the while, we’re creating more and more. So why is this happening and what can be done to stop it?
Part of the problem lies simply in people’s aesthetic expectations. The thing with consumer technology is that it needs to constantly advance in order to remain relevant and exciting. This relates as much to its appearance as it does its functionality. In the case of mobile phones, we only need to look at the way they’ve changed in size and shape over the past decade to see this in play.
Over time, this pressure to meet consumer expectation and take cutting edge products to market, has led to companies taking design shortcuts, such as permanently joining electronic components to other materials through “bonding”. The result is that they’re more challenging to disassemble, so parts cannot be easily replaced, or recycled. So if your disused mobile isn’t sitting in your drawer, it’s probably been buried or incinerated – the toxins from which will now be polluting our land, air and water.
The situation needs urgent attention and it seems like world leaders are starting to notice. This year, e-waste was included in COP27 agenda, for instance, so we can expect to see some regulatory action being implemented as a result. There are already some progressive directives in place, such as the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment plan, or WEEE plan, which aims to contribute towards sustainable production and consumption through several methods. These include the retrieval of secondary raw materials through re-use, recycling and other forms of recovery.
Improving the way devices are designed (i.e. using Life Cycle Assessments, and selecting the optimal sustainability strategies), introducing stricter policies around e-waste and investing in more advanced local recycling infrastructure will help. But an equally powerful mechanism for driving change is consumer behaviour. Which means we need to be making more effort to raise general awareness around this issue.
Big and small players in the technology industry need to come together to build initiatives that demonstrate the impact of tech products on environments, from initial mining to recycling. A simple, immediate step forward would be to proactively educate people on the environmental implications of the materials being used in their devices, for example. In the same vein, we are seeing tech behemoths like Apple providing Self Repair Services so people can fix their broken iPhones at home and as a means to not only reduce e-waste, but to help educate consumers on how to reduce their own impact.
Companies like ‘Erth’ and BackMarket, also have a significant role to play here – both in educating people on how to make their devices last longer and also in making it easier and rewarding for people to trade in their broken or outdated tech.
Breaking down e-waste products for recycling purposes is very complex, so in order to help people on this journey, we need to see more investment in recycling infrastructure and processing systems for electronics overall, as well as better availability of services.
With all this in mind, it’s important to note recycling is the last step in the circular economy and should be recognised as only a single part when it comes to addressing these challenges. Although it may help, it cannot ‘undo’, and we cannot depend solely on recycling to save our planet from this issue. Making a product recyclable will put the onus on the consumer, but it should be on the designers too.
The industry has a responsibility as designers, engineers and advisors to our clients, to be conscious of the impact of what is created. It is important to challenge conventional approaches and design products that contribute positively towards the circular economy, and ensure products fulfil their functional lives and continue to delight people for longer. Through better design and service models, companies must ensure there is a focus at the end of the product’s first life.