The world is facing a growing e-waste crisis, and its impact on the environment threatens to be devastating. The continual demand for electronic devices leads to mounting quantities of discarded items. This “take-make-waste” scenario harms the environment, causing soil and water contamination, air pollution, increased greenhouse gas emissions and reduced landfill space. While the severity of the e-waste crisis swells, technology companies are in a prime position to confront this challenge and improve environmental sustainability.
To address the problem the world faces from obsolete electronic devices, it's necessary first to determine what is considered e-waste. This term includes discarded electrical or electronic devices such as:
E-waste contains potentially hazardous materials such as lead, beryllium, mercury and cadmium, which can cause significant environmental damage and health hazards.
The rapid expansion of convenient, leading-edge technology paired with the drive toward consumption-based models to accommodate demand results in the generation of a very large amount of e-waste.
Globally, an estimated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste was generated in 2019, of which only 17.4% was collected and recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, where decomposing can take centuries. Previously, personal computers and televisions were the primary contributors to e-waste, but mobile phones and other handheld devices have become the dominant sources in recent years. The quantity of e-waste generated annually is projected to soar to 74.7 million metric tons by 2030. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for the largest share of e-waste generated, followed by the Americas and Europe, respectively.
Technology companies play a significant role in both the production and disposal of electronic devices, which means they are well positioned to significantly impact the e-waste crisis — either positively or negatively. However, they face numerous challenges in addressing the issue:
Many electronic devices are not designed for easy disassembly and recycling, making it challenging to recover valuable materials and properly dispose of hazardous materials. In a study conducted by the Basel Convention, 75% of respondents identified design for disassembly and recyclability as the most critical factor in addressing the e-waste crisis.
Outside of creating a more sustainable world for future generations, there is seldom a financial or regulatory incentive for technology companies to design products with end-of-life considerations. A European Environmental Bureau (EEB) study notes that some companies use design tactics such as non-changeable batteries to discourage repair and promote replacement rather than repair.
While two-thirds of consumers seek out eco-friendly brands, the majority are unaware of the importance of proper e-waste disposal and do not prioritize it when disposing of their own electronic devices. In a survey by the Consumer Technology Association, 40% of respondents admitted to throwing away electronic devices instead of recycling them, compared with only 18% who "always recycle."
In some regions, there is a lack of regulatory frameworks and enforcement of e-waste management, making it more difficult for technology companies to implement effective recycling practices. However, many organizations are working to reduce and manage e-waste by implementing sustainable practices for product design, repair services and IT asset disposition.
E-waste frequently ends up in landfills, incinerators or recycling facilities. Sometimes, these locations are unauthorized and operated by untrained workers. Processing e-waste without proper protective measures can lead to hazardous chemical exposure and severe health problems for workers, the surrounding community and the world overall. Improper e-waste disposal also causes air pollution and environmental damage, highlighting the importance of finding alternative methods.
There are several alternative disposal options for e-waste that can reduce the environmental impact of electronic devices. Some methods individuals and organizations can dispose of their electronic devices responsibly include:
The goal of e-waste recycling is to prevent hazardous materials from being released into the environment. The e-waste is collected and transported to a recycling facility and sorted into categories. The specific recycling process varies depending on the type of electronic device and its materials. Generally, devices are disassembled into individual parts, and components are shredded or crushed into small pieces. These are separated by material (such as plastic, metal, and glass), cleaned to remove contaminants, and processed to create new products or materials. Additionally, if needed, recycling may include a data sanitization or data erasure process to protect potentially sensitive information that may be stored on the device.
Advancements in e-waste recycling technology have made it possible to recover a greater percentage of valuable materials from electronic devices and reduce the environmental impact of e-waste. Some advancements include:
These advancements in e-waste recycling technology are helping to create a more sustainable and circular economy in which valuable materials are recovered and reused rather than wasted.
E-waste contains hazardous materials that leach into soil and water if not properly disposed of. Recycling e-waste reduces the amount of these hazardous materials that end up in landfills and reduces the risk of environmental contamination.
|Case in Point: Google committed to using recycled materials in all its hardware products by 2022. It also offers a trade-in program and works with e-waste recyclers to ensure responsible disposal. In 2020, Google reported recycling over 2.5 million pounds of electronic waste through its trade-in program.|
Electronic devices also contain valuable materials that can be recovered and reused in new devices. Proper e-waste recycling allows for the recovery of these materials, decreasing the need for new raw materials to be mined and reducing the strain on natural resources.
The e-waste recycling industry creates new jobs in collection, transportation and recycling, which provides economic benefits to communities and helps to stimulate local economies.
|Case in Point: Dell has a closed-loop recycling process and a trade-in program to ensure responsible disposal. In 2020, Dell reported that it had recycled over 2 billion pounds of electronic waste since the inception of its recycling program in 2007, creating over 1,500 jobs worldwide in the process.|
Recycling e-waste requires less energy than mining new raw materials and manufacturing new electronic devices. This can lead to significant energy savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
Proper e-waste recycling ensures sensitive data stored on electronic devices is securely erased, reducing the risk of data breaches and identity theft.
|Case in Point: Apple's e-waste recycling program includes a data security process that involves the secure erasure of all device data using specialized software. In cases where the device cannot be wiped, physical destruction techniques ensure sensitive information is not retrievable. Apple also offers a trade-in program for customers to return their old devices for proper recycling, which has diverted over 861,000 metric tons of e-waste since 2015.|
In the never-ending drive to create the “next big thing” in technology, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) play a crucial role in the lifecycle of electronic devices. But to limit their impact on the environment, they must go beyond simply manufacturing to consider what happens to the technology as it approaches the end of the lifecycle. Being part of the solution to curb the e-waste crisis should include:
Implementing sustainable product design, repair and IT asset disposition practices enables technology organizations to reduce their environmental impact effectively, comply with regulations and promote sustainability.
Technology companies can address the e-waste crisis cost-effectively by designing products with end-of-life considerations in mind, offering convenient repair and disposal programs and developing closed-loop supply chains that use recycled and/or reusable materials. But knowing where to start can be a challenge in itself. An experienced service and logistics partner can help navigate the obstacles associated with supply chain management, forward and reverse logistics, depot repair services, IT asset disposition, the end-to-end technology lifecycle and more.
By collaborating with like-minded partners to minimize e-waste management costs and increase the recovery of valuable materials, technology companies can confront the e-waste crisis head-on while also improving their bottom line.
Technology companies should own their responsibility for the e-waste crisis by promoting safe disposal methods among their users, implementing sustainable product design practices and supporting best practices for repair, recycling and disposal services.