In 2020, it is estimated that there will be around 4.8 billion mobile phone users worldwide. That’s more than half the global population, a truly staggering statistic that speaks to the ubiquity of digital devices and the huge impact they have had in a relatively short time. To put that into perspective, there are an estimated 1 billion cars on the road today, 1.6 billion TV sets, and something like 2 billion washing machines.
It’s difficult to imagine a world without smartphones, they have changed society on a fundamental level, and arguably, the positives still outweigh the negatives—particularly in developing countries where access to computers or communication technology is limited. However, what is very quickly becoming clear, is that such wholesale adoption of these complex electrical goods is draining both natural resources and generating huge amounts of waste that is not easily disposed of or recycled.
Of course, smartphones are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to e-waste, and as the number of electrical devices in our lives increases, so too does the mountain of discarded equipment. The digital revolution shows no signs of slowing, and if, as many predict, the Internet of Things gains mass adoption, we can expect to see the number of devices skyrocket over the coming decade. The future looks pretty bleak unless we can find a way to effectively process and recycle what is already in existence while finding new ways to create more sustainable technology in the future.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — E-Waste Management for Today
As with all types of trash, the waste management hierarchy needs to play a central role in how we deal with e-waste both today and in the future. Reduce, reuse, recycle must be the mantra of the digital age, effectively targeting each stage of a device’s lifecycle in order to extract maximum benefit from resources and ensure as little waste as possible is created.
However, reducing the manufacture and consumption of new devices must be carefully considered and weighed against the benefits of technological advances. While it is tempting to suggest that everyone should use devices until they are no longer functional, innovative tech developments can and do change lives. The healthcare sector is perhaps the best example of this, where replacing older yet functional machines can literally save lives and ensure a greater quality of life for many patients suffering from a long-term illness.
This pushes us on to the next step in the pyramid. Reuse. Using the healthcare sector as an example, older machines that are still functional should be donated to hospitals and healthcare centers with limited budgets. The same is true for all types of devices, and whether domestically or internationally, there is now a burgeoning market for smartphones, computers, and educational electronics that are no longer wanted in wealthier countries but that are highly prized in less affluent parts of the world.
Finally, despite the advances in recycling over the past decade, and the predicted explosion over the coming decade, recycling should always be seen as a last resort. Recycling e-waste, in particular, is a costly, time consuming, and often a polluting process. In most cases, toxic chemicals are used to separate precious metals such as gold, silver, and platinum from the rest of the materials. Sadly, while there will always be a market for the recycled precious metal, much of the rest of the device is simply disposed of, with the sheer number of different materials proving too difficult and expensive to recycle.
Changing the E-Waste Landscape
Today’s devices are tomorrow’s e-waste, and if the unhealthy relationship between consumer and manufacturer continues to grow, we stand little chance of stemming the tide. Planned obsolescence is a huge issue, with manufacturers releasing new models, sometimes less than a year after the last. New devices replace perfectly functional old devices, and in many cases, “outdated” technology simply gathers dust rather than being rehomed.
In addition to this, the cost of recycling certain components is untenable. Lithium-ion batteries found in portable electronics – but also the main power source for electric vehicles which are likely to replace the billions of petrol cars currently on the roads – are very rarely recycled, despite the fact that lithium itself is 100% recyclable. The cost of this material when recycled is around five times higher than when it is newly produced. In essence, this means that lithium is simply not recycled, not because it cannot be, but only because it doesn’t make financial sense to do it.
The challenges for the future then are manifold. We must not only deal with the growing e-waste generated by a digital society but also build more sustainable electronics that can be easily and cost-effectively recycled. This, alongside a rebalance of the consumer/manufacturer relationship is critical in the fight against e-waste. But how do we begin to address these issues?
Sourcing alternative materials for use in electronic goods to replace silicon, lead, zinc, nickel, lithium, barium, and chromium – all of which contribute to the high-toxicity of e-waste – is a critical piece of the puzzle. In order to reduce the strain on natural resources during manufacture, and ensure that e-waste is less environmentally damaging, possible replacements are currently being researched.
For example, non-toxic lead replacements have already been discovered, and while they may currently be expensive and difficult to manufacture, the process is being streamlined. Alternatives to silicon, which may also increase computer power and reduce battery consumption, are also being researched. In the near future, our use of toxic elements in electronic goods may be swapped out for more sustainable and less environmentally damaging materials—boosting our chances of dealing with e-waste more efficiently and effectively.
The design of future devices may also play a large role in how e-waste is generated. Modular smartphones that allow the user to swap out components are already on the market. Modular electronics reduce e-waste by ensuring that materials are used to their full potential, essentially extending the life of a unit by replacing older components with new ones while still retaining the core of the device.
Better and more sustainable design must be adopted by manufacturers in order to support the recycling industry. In particular, if manufacturers want consumers to continue purchasing new devices, they must offer some type of balance that ensures valuable components are kept functional for longer.
The challenges for the future of the electronics industry and the e-waste that it creates are clear—however, they are not insurmountable. What is required is a wholesale reevaluation of the types of materials used within devices, how they are built and designed, and how we consume them as we move into the future. Recycling must always be a last resort for such complex devices, however, through better design and alternative materials we have a much better chance of creating a circular and sustainable digital society.