Humans produced more than 63 million tons of e-waste in 2021. That pile of toxic metals, plastics, and other pollutants weighs more than the Great Wall of China – the last title-holder for heaviest human creation. With 2022's pile likely to be 3% larger, we need to put on the brakes.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of inertia, and post-use waste is not the only problem. For example, industrial mining operations are a huge moneymaker (for the wealthy) but leave the environment in tatters. Furthermore, the energy consumption to produce our consumer electronics is off the charts. But there is a path towards a more sustainable industry. To find it, we must understand the shortcomings of the current system.
Sourcing Minerals for Electronics Damages the Environment and Society
The entire life cycle of electronics has a profound impact on the environment. Many of the basic materials we use to build components for household devices are toxic and pollute the environment. These elements include beryllium, lead, mercury, chromium, and cadmium. Moreover, rarer materials such as gallium, tantalum, and indium are the focus of an international mining industry that pollutes the developing countries that mine them.
Famously, lithium extraction in the Lithium Triangle of South America (covering parts of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina) consumes and contaminates up to 65% of the region's water. This disruption is devastating for local llama and quinoa farmers. Likewise, extensive lithium operations repeatedly dumped tons of chemicals into the Tibetan Liqi river, including hydrochloric acid. This series of spills killed local fish and other wildlife needed by local Tibetans as food.
Of course, extraction is not the only health and environmental hazard. E-waste that the manufacturing process produces is a growing hazard in developing countries that look to recycle it as a form of income. E-waste dumps often allow many of the toxic elements of household electronics to leech into the ground, contaminating water supplies and emitting harmful fumes. In addition, the lack of social equity in these countries focuses the brunt of adverse health outcomes on the most vulnerable populations in these nations – usually women and children.
Manufacturing Is Powered by Fossil Fuels
China produces 36% of the world's electronics. While there are many geographic and economic reasons for the country's dominance in manufacturing and assembly, one factor is certain – the Chinese electronics industry requires a lot of electricity.
Unfortunately, about 60% of China's energy is coal-powered, and although the ratio is declining, the absolute amount rises yearly. This increase in emissions is having a deleterious effect on the environment that mirrors similar pollution in other countries producing a lot of electronics. Therefore, renewable energy sources are the only viable answer to the emissions catastrophe of the electronics industry.
Sometimes, The Short Product Lifespan Is Intentional
While mining and manufacturing have directly observable effects on the environment, many electronics companies engage in practices that artificially inflate demand, leading to higher-than-necessary production rates and, therefore, more manufacturing and mining. The most famous example of such methods is built-in or planned, obsolescence.
As The Atlantic pointed out several years ago, planned obsolescence is nothing new, going back at least 100 years in the US. Typically, companies will include components with a high likelihood of failure in products that people rely on – lightbulbs, refrigerators, smartphones, etc.
Modern marketing aggressively touts the bells and whistles of new models, while older ones never seem to work correctly after the latest software update. Furthermore, some companies make it almost impossible to maintain their devices by not providing access to internal batteries and other components that consumers could repair or replace easily.
There is no simple solution to planned obsolescence, but recommitting to devise repair and refurbishing would be a start. Moreover, governments could incentivize companies that offer buy-back deals and programs to repair or reprocess their products. Whatever the solution, it will require consumers, producers, and governments to be on the same page.
Circularity Will Reduce Consumption and Waste
In addition to changing public perception about the quality of repaired or refurbished goods, the push for circularity can significantly alleviate stress on the environment and society. By converting all inputs to outputs and vice versa, the industry can decrease the demand for mining and reduce the amount of waste that arrives in landfills.
Unfortunately, several barriers make circularity challenging to achieve. First, it isn't easy to recycle many components of consumer electronics. They consist of different materials, some rare and others toxic. Extracting them is a complicated, time-intensive process. Moreover, supply chains are linear and do not readily cross from one industry to another. As a result, they will need to be reconfigured to facilitate "industrial symbiosis."
The difficulties of transitioning to a circular electronics industry are not insurmountable. A report from the UN and World Economic Forum shows that circularity can improve the economy by spurring growth and advancing equity. In addition, innovative ideas like electronics as a service (i.e., rentals of devices or appliances for specific purposes or intervals) can extend the lifespan of devices tremendously, further dropping resource consumption and waste production.
E-Waste Is a Complicated Problem that Requires Universal Buy-In
The electronics industry is a massive polluter, from mining and manufacturing to the landfill. Moreover, electricity use and planned obsolescence lead to higher demands on mineral and fossil fuel resources. Fortunately, there are answers. A whole-of-society approach, uniting producers, consumers, and governments, can forge consumer electronics into a circular system. With fewer material and energy inputs and less waste, the industry can deliver tech and economic growth without threatening the environment.
Maximize Use – Look for products or retailers with extended warranties, repair programs, or circular practices.
Pass it on – Donate your used electronics to social programs. Many organizations that serve victims of domestic violence or other abuse gratefully accept used mobile devices.
Reduce – Reusing and recycling are wonderful. But what if you don't really need a new gadget in the first place? The demand of rabid consumerism partially drives the production of electronics. Instead, we should focus on using only what we need. The 1980s are long gone.