The tech industry’s e-waste stats are shocking. In 2020, 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste was produced — that’s the equivalent of about 1000 laptops per second. And what’s worse? Only 17.4% was recycled, meaning that the remainder ended up in landfill.
The UN forecasts that annual e-waste will grow to 74.7 million tons by 2030. It’s high time we rethink current consumption trends: we need to focus on recycling and reusing pre-used materials for electronics — there’s no Planet B.
If only throwing our old tech away was simple — it’s not. Landfill is complex. When we throw away used parts, we waste rare earth elements, which make them harder (and more expensive) to source
in the future.
But more importantly, e-waste has considerable negative impacts on human health — and makes up 70% of our entire toxic waste. It contains mercury, lead, cadmium, polybrominated flame retardants, barium and lithium, all of which can cause brain, kidney, heart, liver, and skeletal system damage. It affects the nervous and reproductive systems, which can lead to birth defects and disease. Scary stuff. For example: the toxins emitted from the gold mining used to produce a single laptop would need the equivalent of 20,000 swimming pools to dilute. Let that sink in…
It’s not just us humans being affected: e-waste also impacts the surrounding environment in catastrophic ways. They, in turn, go on to affect us also. Contamination in the air, soil and water causes damage to the surrounding ecosystems, making their way into local crops, then finally finding
its way back to local populations.
To avoid the toxic effects of e-waste? It's crucial we properly e-cycle so that old tech can be recycled, refurbished, resold or reused.
CURRENT RECYCLING OPTIONS
Organisations and websites such as Recycle Your Electricals offer a certified list of retailers near you— making recycling your old electronics easy. British grocery store, Co-op, recently collaborated with tech recirculation platform Spring to bring tech recycling spots to the high street. It may take a little digital digging, but there are locations for end of life products. You just have to look.
How does it work, exactly?
Turns out, over 75% of materials in our unwanted tech can be recycled into something new — it just needs to end up in the correct place for it to be useful.
Old tech is then collected from electronic recycling points all across the country, transported to specific facilities, and checked for any dangerous items before being moved along a conveyor belt and broken down by heavy metal chains. Once separated, the reusable materials are then saved andstored for their sustainable future use.
Circuit board precious metals go through a process called pyrolisis, where high temperatures distinguish different materials. Other pieces are shredded and shorted, calling on fascinating technology such as vibrating trays, infrared sensors and magnets.
Consumers often do not realise that manufacturers have to pay a fee so that our old tech can be recycled for free — the not-for-profit organisation behind the aforementioned Recycle Your Electricals campaign, for example, is funded by producers of electrical appliances.
We, as consumers, need to make use of these opportunities which come at no cost, so that we can prevent old tech from ending up in landfill as useless toxic e-waste.
HOW DOES THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY HELP LIMIT TECH’S IMPACT?
A circular economy model actually solves many of the problems. But how? By using existing materials, most of the environmental impact in the manufacturing of a product is bypassed.
Take gomi for example — the carbon footprint involved in making a new speaker is 50.4% lower than other leading models. Simply because most of the core materials are recycled: new virgin materials do not need to be mined and processed, meaning the carbon footprint involved in this stage of manufacturing is avoided.
Modular design is also key to the circular economy. If products can be upgraded, they can be quickly replaced — and again, the manufacture of new products is avoided.
End of life recycling is also part of a circular economy model. Meaning e-waste — and all the problems associated with it — are avoided entirely.
When recycling is featured in a product’s design, future possibilities are endless. And carbon footprints are kept to a minimum.
Sound’s simple, no? It can be — consume consciously.