From faulty home electronics to old smartphones: The total amount of electronic waste generated worldwide this year is estimated at a record 57.4 million tonnes, more than the weight of the heaviest man-made object on Earth, the great Wall of China.
This mountain of electronic and electrical equipment waste (WEEE) is only growing. According to a new report published by the international organization, the WEEE Forum, Electronic waste is set to increase by up to 4% each year to reach 74 million tonnes by 2030.
One of the main reasons for the explosion in the global production of electronic waste is the high rate of consumption of electronics, which, according to the WEEE Forum, is increasing by 3% per year. This is especially noticeable when looking at the smartphone industry. On average, consumers replace their mobile devices every three years, and up to a billion handsets are shipped worldwide each year.
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The problem is, few consumers know what to do with the devices they’re replacing – and more often than not, they end up sleeping in the back of a drawer or going straight to the landfill. Estimates indicate that the average household in Europe is home to 11 items that are no longer used or broken. Each citizen sits on up to five kilograms of unused electrical and electronic products.
And when devices aren’t put away in a conveniently labeled “old electronics” box, they’re often thrown in the trash without worrying about where they end up. According to the WEEE Forum, 151 million cell phones are thrown in the trash every year, ending up incinerated or landfilled in the United States. As a result, up to 40% of heavy metals in landfills nationwide come from discarded electronic devices.
One way to meet the e-waste challenge is to recycle old and unused devices. But the easy options of throwing items away or hiding them, added to various factors such as fear for data security or difficulty reaching points of return, mean recycling levels are still quite low around the world. whole.
While citizens estimate that around half of electronic waste is currently recycled, the reality is much bleaker: just over 17% of electronic devices were known to be properly treated and recycled in 2019.
Yet recycling has a huge role to play in reducing the industry’s environmental footprint. Smartphones, for example, require a lot of resources to build, with analysts estimating that the total carbon footprint of the manufacturing process equals the annual carbon emissions of a small country. If some of the resources could be recycled from older devices, reducing those numbers could go a long way.
For example, recovering certain materials like gold from waste saves a lot of carbon dioxide emissions compared to mining, experts from the WEEE Forum have said.
“Each tonne of recycled WEEE avoids around two tonnes of CO2 emissions,” said Pascal Leroy, Managing Director of the WEEE Forum. “If we all do the right thing with our electronic waste, we are helping to reduce harmful CO2 emissions.
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The gains are not only environmental: materials that can be used in old electronics also have financial value. A ton of discarded cell phones, for example, contains more gold than a ton of gold ore.
And a million cell phones could generate 24 kilograms of gold, 16,000 kilograms of copper, 350 kilograms of silver and 14 kilograms of palladium. In 2019, the value of this type of raw material in electronic waste was estimated to be around $ 57 billion, of which only $ 10 billion was recovered.
Consumers are now responsible for their e-waste, said the WEEE Forum. “One thing stands out: as long as citizens don’t return their used and broken equipment, sell it or give it away, we will have to keep mining brand new materials causing great environmental damage,” Leroy said.
This means that it is necessary to educate consumers, but also to facilitate their recycling through a suitable and practical infrastructure.
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Industrial players therefore also have a role to play. Many equipment manufacturers like Apple or Samsung have already implemented recycling programs, which encourage users to send their old phones to dedicated recycling centers or encourage them to trade in their devices for credits for future purchases.
Fairphone, a small manufacturer of sustainable phones based in the Netherlands, has taken an even more radical approach. Rather than focusing entirely on recycling old products, the company sells devices designed to last much longer than the average three-year lifespan of a smartphone.
The products Fairphone sells are modular, which means that users can easily replace or update certain components of their phone if they break or get too old – think screens, but also batteries or headphone jacks. The company hopes this model will allow owners to keep their devices for up to five years.
“What is actually more efficient than recycling is to keep using devices,” Matthew Cockerill, strategic design consultant, who previously helped launch Fairphone’s first handset. “Do we have to throw away our products and make totally new ones, or can we look at things like re-manufacturing, where a smartphone could be taken back and upgraded, with a few parts replaced but basically most of the components would last?” much longer? ”
Longer lifecycles for electronic devices ultimately mean less carbon is emitted to produce new ones – as well as less electronic waste. Therefore, it might be worth thinking twice before you upgrade your handset and send it to join its predecessors in that kitchen drawer.