Last updated February 1, 2018 at 2:36 pm
The average lifespan of a cell phone is less than 2 years; a laptop 5 years, a television 10 years, and these numbers decrease every year. As a society we are buying more electronics and discarding them at an alarming rate.
So it comes as no surprise that we have a major electronic waste (e-waste) problem on our hands. What is surprising, however, is the lack of regulation in e-waste disposal and how little we know about what happens to electronics after we throw them away.
Only this year the United Nations released a comprehensive plan for measuring the amount of e-waste, tracking its movement, and implementing recycling standards. This report even needed to include a definition of e-waste because previously there was no standard way to define what is considered e-waste. All this happened this year, despite the fact that most homes in developed counties contained a refrigerator or washing machine by the 1950’s, a television by the 1970’s, a computer or video game console by the late 1980’s, and cell phones boomed in popularity in the late 1990’s. The initiative to deal with this waste is decades late. After taking the initial step to create a viable strategy to measure e-waste, the UN found that an estimated 41.8 million metric tonnes of e-waste was created in 2014 (equal to the combined weight of more than 8 million elephants).
But lots of this waste is recycled right?
I see signs for free electronic drop offs all the time. However, the UN found that only 15% of e-waste is recycled in an approved manner. Leaving 85% or nearly 7 million elephants worth of e-waste in landfills or being disposed of in dangerous ways. E-waste contains components harmful to people and the environment including CFCs, mercury, lead, and acid batteries. Often the e-waste ends up in developing countries where there are no regulations, and people are exposed to the dangerous chemicals while they try to salvage what is valuable. This accumulation of e-waste in developing countries has been documented in nearly every major news outlet since the early 2000s, but little has changed over the past decade in terms of how it is handled.
The UN initiative is a first step. The need for more companies and more people to manage the collection and recycling of e-waste is only going to increase. If all the e-waste produced in 2014 were recycled the revenue created would be nearly 65 billion Australian dollars. That makes the recycling and harvesting of e-waste an untapped billion-dollar industry. Billions of dollars of gold, copper, lead and plastics are available for the people who can devise safe and effective ways of gathering and recycling e-waste.
In addition to the money to be made in recycling, there is another way all this e-waste can be managed: creating less waste by fixing more electronics instead of just throwing them away. Most of our electronics have become “a black box” and the vast majority of consumers have no idea how their device works, let alone how to fix it. Companies that offer affordable electronic repair or offer to teach consumers how to fix electronics themselves will likely become more prominent in the coming years. The largest portion of e-waste is small equipment, which includes common household items like tea kettles, microwaves, vacuums etc. Indicating that the largest culprit in the creation of this massive amount of waste is the everyday consumer. Creating a way to easily fix household electronic devices could decrease the negative impact e-waste is having on our world.
As a result of our society’s long overdue response to the issue of e-waste, there are opportunities for jobs in every step of its management. There is no doubt that this will soon be a large industry as we attempt to catch up with the decades of waste our world has produced and find the best possible solution to this massive problem.
UPDATE: Since this article was published, we have been made aware of regulated mobile phone recycling programs within Australia such as MobileMuster. We have also discovered the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme which is coordinated by the Federal Government. There are also numerous e-waste schemes on a state, territory and local government level. For Australian readers, please enquire within your area in regards to e-waste. Whilst we are lucky to have such initiatives in Australia, electronic waste is still a global issue that needs be addressed on a larger scale and for all types of electronics.
Written by Jeanette McConnell