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The Impacts and Management of E-waste

As many nations around the world become increasingly dependent on technology for their day-to-day activities, an inevitable side effect has grown to become a global environmental crisis – the build-up and mismanagement of electronic waste. E-waste, for short, is not limited to used or broken portable devices like cell phones, but includes the full range of electronic devices that have been discarded that we see in our workplaces and homes, including refrigerators and used batteries. 

The monumental increase in the number of e-waste produced globally can be attributed, at least in part, to the rise of “planned obsolescence” practices in manufacturing and technological industries. When companies intentionally design products to have shorter life-times in the hopes that consumers will constantly buy newer, more upgraded products, this practice is called planned obsolescence. We are all too familiar with the pressure to buy the latest smartphone or laptop, as well as associated miscellaneous electronic equipment that have been specifically designed to be incompatible with older models. Since many older operating systems become unsupported and obsolete, the functionality of outdated devices can plummet. 

As the costs of repairing an older electronic device is often quite steep and trumps the costs of simply buying a new product, there currently remains very little incentive to keep using older generations of devices. With the proliferation of facilities able to manufacture semiconductors in Brazil, China, and India, the costs to manufacture new portable devices like cell phones has decreased. We see a similar scenario playing out in the case of replacing printers – the prices of ink and toner cartridges are disproportionately high, tempting consumers to simply buy new printer devices when they run out of ink. Moreover, larger household appliances, too, have seen a trend of replacement over repair – while in 2004, the percent of such appliances that was replaced within five years of initial purchase was only 7%, this figure increased to 13% in 2013. 

Planned obsolescence has led to an e-waste crisis in Canada, the U.S., and several other technology-dependent countries. In Canada alone, 638,000 tonnes of e-waste were created in 2017. According to the Bureau of International Recycling, an estimated 9.25 million tonnes will be generated by the U.S. and Canada in the year 2025 alone. The U.S., in particular, discarded the majority of 41 million tonnes of its e-waste generated in 2015 into developing countries. Moreover, only 29% of e-waste created in the U.S. in 2012 was recycled, leaving the rest to be incinerated or discarded in landfills. With the rollout of 5G networks, the e-waste dilemma is only expected to exacerbate, as the U.S. spending on telephone and communications equipment has sharply increased over time. In fact, e-waste has been dubbed the world’s fastest growing stream of solid wastes. 

The shocking amount of e-waste piling up in landfills is worrying for a number of reasons. Chiefly, the environmental impact of toxins found in e-waste, such as mercury, lead, and beryllium, has the significant potential to pollute the neighbouring soil, water, and air. Incineration to reclaim elements from e-waste such as copper can also release toxins into the atmosphere, and the mining industry serving to provide resources to be incorporated into electronic devices has profound environmental consequences as well. 

Some efforts have been made to mitigate and prevent the effects of e-waste. Parts of Europe, Canada, and the U.S. have established Extended Producer Responsibility regulations, which deem the responsibility of creating collection and recycling programs for discarded electronic materials to be that of manufacturers. Many non-profit organizations have begun to establish initiatives to reuse old electronics, by collecting used devices from the community, restoring their functionality as much as possible, and releasing them back into the community. Evidently, this creates jobs within the city and aligns with the principles of the environmentally-friendly concept of a circular economy. Some companies have created R2R (“return to retail”) programs, whereby customers can return their used electronics through a buy-back system. 

However, the steps taken after dropping off e-waste to the recycling facility or retail store are labour-intensive and costly. Due to the heterogeneity of electronic devices and the elements that they contain, they must be manually separated, which makes the process highly time-consuming. The best practice to reduce e-waste is prevention – by opting to purchase newer devices less frequently and using old but still functional devices for as long as possible, these time-consuming steps may be side-stepped and less e-waste will arrive at landfills.

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