The United Nations calls it a “tsunami.” Fifty million tons per year and growing.
That’s the global scale of electronic waste, also called e-waste. It’s one part of the rapid growth in the municipal solid waste stream. Virtually 100% of e-waste is recyclable, yet many countries are only recycling a fraction of their e-waste. Roughly 20% of e-waste is being effectively recycled worldwide.
From smartphones and tablets to laptops and LCD screens, the economics of electronics encourages disposal rather than reuse. Often, it’s cheaper to buy new than to recycle. With the increase in consumption, mining for materials and the large quantities of e-waste spell ecological challenges.
Few electronic devices last more than a few years these days. A report from the ENDS Europe agency demonstrated that electronic units sold to replace faulty appliances rose from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012. Large appliances in the home were replaced within their first five years of operations at a rate of 13% in 2013, up from 7% in 2004.
With the rate of e-waste production growing 4-5% per year, there are increasing calls to address the issue through a mix of government reforms and industry efforts. Before we discuss those efforts, it’s important to understand the scope of the e-waste crisis by looking at the numbers that make it a real and urgent challenge.
E-waste by Numbers
Reduce And Reuse
Produce less. Pollute less.
These are the two key ways to effectively address the e-waste issue. A big part of that is extending the lives of devices which keeps them out of landfills and in the hands of people. Electronic device users are often unable to replace parts in their devices which drives them to buy a new device as older devices become less valuable pretty quickly.
Nothing short of a global movement to generate less waste and recycle electronics in new ways will adequately address the e-waste challenge. That’s why “right to repair” legislation is on the rise. Massachusetts passed a right to repair law in 2013 that focused on the automotive industry. This led the industry to change policies around repairing advanced software and automotive components nationwide rather than deal with patchwork regulations across multiple states.
Following Massachusetts example, other states are catching on and introducing their own right to repair legislation from South Dakota and Nebraska to New York and Minnesota. As in the example of Massachusetts and the automotive industry, it may only take a few states to tip the balance when it comes to how e-waste is managed.
A similar trend could be coming to the electronics recycling industry. Here are two key data points that show why “right to repair” is a good idea when it comes to reducing e-waste:
- 200 repair jobs created for every 1000 tons of reused electronics (iFixit)
- 3,657 U.S. homes could be powered for a year by recycling one million laptop computers
From job creation to energy conservation (and much more), right to repair efforts are one of the many tools in our toolbox when it comes to tackling electronic waste.