This E-Waste Infographic Raises More Questions than It Answers

How much e-waste is there, anyway? How reliable is the available data? And why is it important to find out?

Good.is e-waste infographic

This infographic, from Good & Column Five, is compelling, and it’s been making the rounds on the internet for a while. But I’m skeptical, both of their source data (I found some discrepancies) and of the idea that this issue can be simplified so much.

First of all, I want to give you a better sense of the scale of the problem—the infographic gives you big numbers, but no context. 40 million tons is a lot of mass. That’s 80 billion pounds. Given that there are 6.99 billion people in the word, we are producing about 11.5 pounds of e-waste per person on the planet, per year. So each year, your share of the global e-waste is about the weight of a house cat.

That doesn’t seem so big, right? Well, it depends on a lot of factors: what kind of toxic materials like lead and poly-brominated flame retardants are in your cat-sized allotment of waste? How much energy was used to manufacture it in the first place? What is the carbon footprint of all that manufacturing? Is it possible to fully recycle it to make new electronics, or will it all be downcycled and used to make plastic freeway dividers?

Investigating Each Issue Separately

Each of those issues deserves its own investigation. And of course, as the infographic rightfully points out, e-waste doesn’t come equally from every country. How much really does come from the US? The infographic claims the US produces 3.3 million tons of e-waste in a year. But the EPA, a source cited at the bottom of the infographic, reports that the US produced 2.25 million tons of e-waste in 2007, 32% less. Those quantities are hard enough to conceptualize (I’ve tried: 2.25 million tons is 10,000 Statues of Liberty; 3.3 million tons is exactly half the weight of the Hoover Dam) without such widely varying reports.

I have other questions about the infographic, though, too. What is “the worldwide market for e-waste,” exactly? Who is making that money? Does the growth of that market directly equate to more e-waste produced per year? Is the amount of e-waste going to continue to grow indefinitely as Good & Column Five suggest, or will the tide begin to ebb as devices get smaller, clunky dinosaur machines are phased out, and recycling techniques get more advanced? Plus, how much of the e-waste in developing nations and in dump sites like Agbogbloshie comes from illegal imports? What about the devices that enter developing nations as legal, working secondhand devices and are just now being discarded?

That brings up a more controversial question: Are used electronics exports unequivocally bad—don’t many fixers’ livelihoods depend on repairing imported electronics? After all, wouldn’t it be nice if my ten-year-old laptop could be shipped around the world and repaired, so that it ends up allowing some kid in Delhi to do school work and use Wikipedia?

I don’t mean to romanticize e-waste; I know full well that my broken, discarded laptop will probably not end up repaired and in the hands of an elementary schooler in India. All I’m saying is that anyone who claims this issue is simple and clear-cut is either being intellectually lazy or pulling the wool over your eyes. Waste streams are messy (that’s kind of the point).

The Messy E-Waste Stream is Hard to Track

They’re so messy, in fact, that even the so-called “experts” (such as the EPA) aren’t sure how much e-waste we’re putting out — illegal exports are poorly tracked and much discarded electronic equipment is stored indefinitely in shipping containers. A device’s parts could go through dozens of different countries around the globe before ending up in a dump. Every country is both a source and a destination of e-waste, a fact that the “e-waste destinations” portion of the infographic obscures.

While I worry that the infographic may be oversimplified and misinformed, I agree whole-heartedly with its main point: We have a responsibility to be thoughtful in the way we deal with our devices when we’re done with them. As for the subtleties, I’ve got a lot of questions. That’s the reason we started iFixit.org. We’ll be talking with experts, diving into the data, traveling to electronics scrapyards around the world, and sharing the results of our journey with you here.

Image Credit: Good.is