The Hidden Costs of Electronic Waste

Note: Article adapted from here.

Modern technology has paved the way for a more connected world. Our electronic devices are increasingly faster, more compact and higher powered, with every new model. These devices are also more affordable than ever before. With this growth inaccessibility, the standard of living has drastically improved for many. Every year, the number of electronic devices used globally increases by 2.5 million tonnes. However, each new device purchased comes with a far more dire hidden cost. Our heightened dependence on technology has created a surge in demand, far larger than our capability to safely dispose of the waste we generate. Electronic waste has become the world's fastest growing waste stream as product life cycles are shortened and repairs are more expensive than repurchasing. These discarded devices pile up in landfills, causing irreparable damage to the health of the surrounding people and the environment.

In 2019, 53.6 million tonnes of electronic waste was generated globally. That alarming figure is equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships. These numbers are set to increase exponentially, given the yearly increase in consumption. By 2030, the waste generated is set to reach a whopping 74.7 million tonnes. Despite this, only a mere 17.4% of all electronic waste in 2019 was recycled. Since 2014, electronic waste has increased by 9.2 million tonnes yearly, and its rate of recycling has only increased by 1.8 million tonnes over the same period. This does not even account for the mammoth amount of electronic waste which remains undocumented. Our electronic waste is often exported to developing countries where regulations for safe disposal are lax. It is quintessential that the remaining 82.6% of our electronic waste is prudently collected and recycled.

Without an established system of effective waste management, the toxic components of electronic waste seep into the surrounding environment and cause widespread harm. Mercury, brominated flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons are known to cause severe impairments to the health of the people who live near these electronic waste scrap yards. Exposure to mercury, in particular, has been linked to brain damage. An estimated 50 tonnes of mercury is released into the environment each year, from undocumented electronic waste alone. The mountains of waste also directly contribute to the greenhouse effect. Temperature-exchange equipment from fridges and air conditioners, when disposed of, release approximately 98 million tonnes of greenhouse gases from scrap yards each year. Electronic waste puts an irremediable toll on our environment.

Apart from the harmful toxins, electronic waste also contains precious metals like gold, silver, copper and platinum. The rarity of these metals is a key incentive for recycling electronic waste. Given the rising demand, this method of safe disposal will be pivotal in tackling shortages. The total value of all electronic waste was valued at US$57 billion in 2019. This mammoth figure surpasses the GDP of most countries. However, since only a fraction of the waste was recycled, no more than US$10 billion was recovered. Fret not, more initiatives are being taken by governments to better assess the quickly expanding scale of the problem. Since 2019, 78 countries, wherein 71% of the world’s population resides, either had a policy for safe electronic waste management or were in the midst of implementing regulations.

Despite this, policies still are not legally binding and regulation is rarely enforced. A majority of these countries are unfortunately where the bulk of electronic waste is exported to. A circular economy must be created to ensure a sustainable future. Clean Urban Mining, part of the Clean Earth Technologies Group has a solution. We have eradicated traditionally used toxic cyanide in the extraction process of rare metals; replacing it with a non-toxic reagent. Our award-winning patented leaching process is critical in preserving the health of the people and the environment. Given the gravity of the issue, it is time we take matters into our own hands instead of tirelessly waiting for regulations to be passed or taken seriously.