Photo via Squeezyboy via Flickr CC
Last May, Pike Research estimated that e-waste going to our landfills would plateau by 2015 and begin to decline. That's great news since landfill is the last place we want our e-waste going. However, it has to go somewhere and the mountain of used gadgets, computers, televisions and other electronics just keeps growing. So where is it likely to end up? According to a new report from the United Nations, it'll end up in developing countries. The report estimates a 500% growth over the next 10 years in computer waste in India alone. Now that is some frightening news. Not only is it scary news, but as CNET points out we are major culprits: "The report, co-authored by EMPA of Switzerland, specialty materials group Umicore and the United Nations University, said that the United States is the biggest producer of e-waste, creating around 3 million metric tons a year. Close behind is China, which produces around 2.3 million metric tons domestically and is where a lot of the developed world's e-waste is sent, EMPA said."
According to the report, not only will India see a 500% increase in e-waste, but China and South Africa will see a 400% increase from 2007 levels over the next ten years, with mobile phones being a significant component, rising seven times higher in China and 18 times higher in India. E-Waste from televisions will be 1.5 to 2 times higher in China and India, and e-waste from discarded refrigerators will double or triple in India.
Logical Solutions to Illogical Problems
The logical solution is to use what devices we have a lot longer, and to find value in reusing the materials from old electronics. For example, simple solutions to the problem of mobile phones: First, people in developed nations (ahem, US) need to keep a hold of their cell phones an appropriate amount of time - much longer than the incredibly brief 18 months we currently have them before upgrading. Currently over 150 million cell phones are sold every year in the US alone.
And second, when we do trade them in, if they're in working condition, they need to go straight to the millions of people in developing nations who have a need and hundreds of uses for mobile phones. If they're not in working condition, they get safely taken apart and the materials reused. As the report states, "Manufacturing mobile phones and personal computers consumes 3 per cent of the gold and silver mined worldwide each year; 13 per cent of the palladium and 15 per cent of cobalt."
Imagine the lower carbon footprint (carbon dixoide emissions from mining and production of precious metals for electronics is estimated to be about 0.1% of the global emissions), and lower environmental and human impact of just reusing many of those materials, rather than mining them. But of course the obvious solution is not always the easiest.
As the report states, "Developing vibrant national recycling schemes is complex and simply financing and transferring high tech equipment from developed countries [to developing countries where e-waste dumps are located] is unlikely to work."
Still there is nothing reasonable about e-waste levels like this, and rising, especially when it comes to mobile phones. And for the rest of the e-waste, there's little excuse for not disposing of it properly and reusing the majority of the materials. As the popular green phrase goes, there's no such thing as waste, just raw materials in the wrong place, and that's the case with used electronics; when thought of resourcefully, there's a market to be made out of the metals and plastics in recycled gadgets. The report advocates for transportation of some e-waste like batteries, circuit boards and other components to be moved from poorer countries to those equipped to properly recycle them.
It's an Emergency and a Business Opportunity
"This report gives new urgency to establishing ambitious, formal and regulated processes for collecting and managing e-waste via the setting up of large, efficient facilities in China," says UN Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP. "China is not alone in facing a serious challenge. India, Brazil, Mexico and others may also face rising environmental damage and health problems if e-waste recycling is left to the vagaries of the informal sector.
"In addition to curbing health problems, boosting developing country e-waste recycling rates can have the potential to generate decent employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions and recover a wide range of valuable metals including silver, gold, palladium, copper and indium - by acting now and planning forward many countries can turn an e-challenge into an e-opportunity," he added.