As the amount of technological advancements increase in our society, so does the waste that such advancements entail. When you replace an electronic device or appliance at home, how do you deal with the old product? If you choose to throw it away, that appliance has turned into electronic waste, or e-waste for short. According to The Global E-waste Monitor 2020, a report published along with the UN Environment Program, a record of 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste was recorded, which is up 21 percent when compared to previous years. The report also estimates that by 2030, the amount of e-waste will nearly double to 74 million metric tons, a worrying amount for the environment and the world at large.
However, how is so much e-waste produced anyway? Many attribute this to the faster rate at which consumers replace old electronics. While some may simply replace electronics such as mobile phones due to the need to be “trendy” and the desire to use the newest model, the fact is that appliances made today are not built to last, also known as “planned obsolescence”. This is due to firms and businesses being able to reap more of a profit by forcing consumers to replace old, worn out devices, having to bear either the repair costs or the cost of getting a new one. A study conducted by the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) has found that the need for replacing large-scale electronic devices within the first 5 years of use had increased from 7 to 13 percent from 2004-2014, seemingly implying the effects of planned obsolescence. But the study also notes that a third of all replacements for such electronics were due to the desire for a better device compared to the current, functional one. Therefore it can also be seen that consumer preferences play a considerable role in the increase of electronic waste.
The impact of e-waste on the environment and society cannot be understated. One of the most pressing points is that electronics contain toxic materials that can adversely affect the health of both humans and other animals. If electronic waste is disposed of informally, in the form of either dismantling, shredding or melting, it releases dust particles and toxins into the atmosphere that worsens the already dire air pollution, damaging the respiratory health of those breathing in the particle-filled air. If the e-waste is burned however, which is not uncommon due to some treating it as normal waste, it increases the chance of cancer and other chronic diseases due to the fine particles released being able to travel thousands of miles. Furthermore, if disposed of in a landfill or dumped illegally, e-waste can have an adverse effect on the surrounding soil. This is due to the heavy metals in the e-waste being able to seep directly into the soil, causing the potential contamination of both groundwater and nearby plantations. Thus, e-waste can have a detrimental effect on both the health of living things and the environment at large, making it a pressing problem that needs to be solved as soon as possible.
Seeing all the causes and negative effects of e-waste, how can we decrease the amount of e-waste we produce? One of the simpler solutions is to not replace old electronics with new ones until it is really deemed unusable. Thus you would have to hold off on buying the new smartphone that had just gone on sale or the new television that has a bigger screen than the one you have. However, no matter how durable, there comes a day when it will need to be discarded. Instead of treating them like normal waste, one can choose to recycle it. For example, in Hong Kong, there is currently a scheme called the Producer Responsibility Scheme on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WPRS). Started in 2018, the scheme makes it so that 8 different types of electronic devices are directed to licensed recycling facilities. The appliances will then be recycled and some components can be broken down to be used again. If we participate in such schemes and keep conscious of e-waste recycling, the effect of e-waste on the Earth can surely be mitigated.
As human advancement in the field of technology and electronics see no sign of slowing down, the making of e-waste is unavoidable. However, knowing how e-waste is made and their adverse effects, we can try our best to produce less of such waste and lessen its effect on our lives and the environment as a whole.