The ugly truth about toxic e-waste

50 million metric tons of electronic waste are generated every year. Can we make it sustainable?
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As new iterations of technology rapidly replace their predecessors, electronic waste (or, e-waste) is beginning to pile up around the world at never-before-seen rates, and it’s creating an environmental nightmare.

Our lives are driven by technology. Society has become increasingly reliant on the latest smartphones and computers, and as a result, we’re becoming increasingly wasteful. Making matters worse, the machines we use every day aren’t built to last, but to drive consumerism.

Many believe it’s time we start recognizing the global consequences of this system that’s fueled by manufacturers and seek more sustainable solutions, not just for how to recycle electronics but for how to reduce our production of them in the first place. 

What Is E-Waste? 

The term e-waste refers to electronic products that are no longer deemed useful or effective. TVs, computers, smartphones, cameras, DVD players, stereo systems, and other devices that have been replaced by newer, more popular models stack up in recycling centers around the world creating a wasteland of obsolete technology.

In the U.S. alone, Americans throw away 416,000 cell phones each day, totalling 151 million phones each year. In 2014, an estimated 44.4 million metric tons of e-waste was discarded globally. By 2019, that number had grown to 53.6 million tons. It’s now estimated that in the year 2030, the number will escalate to 74.7 million.

Some of this e-waste is considered hazardous due to the materials used to build it. One example is the cathode ray tubes in TVs and computer monitors, making them nearly impossible to truly recycle. All too often, the workers in undeveloped countries who end disassembling most of these items get exposed to life-threatening toxins on a daily basis.

It’s clear that an increased emphasis on recycling alone isn’t going to entirely solve our e-waste problem. To reverse this disastrous trend, societies will have to put practices in place that are designed to reduce electronic waste altogether. 

The Right to Repair

Tech manufacturers have already convinced consumers of the need to continue buying the latest models, and for good reason – it boosts their ability to increase and sustain profit. Further driving their bottom line, the way that most tech is constructed today makes it nearly impossible to repair. To seriously combat e-waste, we need to address these fundamental issues in manufacturing and reduce our overall consumption.

One advocacy group aims to pass “Right to Repair” legislation in all 50 states. This would protect consumers by requiring that products are made in such a way that it’s possible for the purchaser (or a repair technician) to adequately fix the product, if it breaks. Under such laws, manuals and schematics would be publicly available, and necessary parts and tools would be available at fair prices.

Fixing Dirty Recycling 

Jim Puckett is the founder of the Basel Action Network, which focuses on restricting hazardous waste trade on a global scale. Along with tackling plastic pollution and working to eliminate the environmental impact of cargo ships, BAN’s primary goal is to address the world’s growing e-waste problem.

“People get rid of their computers every three years maybe,” Puckett explains, “They get rid of their phones about every two years. Just multiply that by every human on Earth and it’s a very large mountain of e-waste.” And sadly, most of it ends up in undeveloped countries.

While the 1989 United Nations Basel Convention intended to protect undeveloped nations from turning into the perpetual dumping grounds of developed ones, many countries have found ways to work around its mandates.

Puckett describes, “Probably about half of your old electronics go to the global south and it is justified by saying that, ‘We’re going to give it another life. They can fix it in the market there,’ which sounds really good. Unfortunately, in the global south, it’s really dirty recycling that harms people and the environment.”

As part of its efforts, BAN created the e-Stewards program which is intended to encourage more socially and environmentally-conscious recycling. The program offers a certification for centers to distinguish themselves as recyclers that are truly working to implement responsible e-waste practices. The certification process is the most rigorous in the industry, ensuring that businesses are truly going above and beyond.

Tech Built to Last

Improving recycling practices is an important and necessary part of the solution, but Puckett believes the root of the issue is much deeper. “‘Reduce, recycle, reuse’ is a nice term of art, but the reduction side of it, which is the most important, is always forgotten,” he says.

A company called Teracube recognizes that recycling alone is simply a stop-gap for a problem in need of more scalable and sustainable solutions. While most technology manufacturers seem to be designing equipment that’s built to quickly fail, Teracube is different.

Teracube creates sustainable smart phones that look like an iPhone or Android, but come with a promise: a four-year warranty, on-demand battery replacements, and cheap repairs. Their products are built to last and keep up with the latest software updates. The company is also steering the conversation among the world’s biggest players in the name of sustainability.

As the amount of e-waste we produce continues to grow exponentially each year, BAN and companies like Teracube are spearheading unique and innovative changes that will ultimately serve to protect the planet.

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