E-Waste Is More Tragedy than Opportunity

E-Waste Is More Tragedy than Opportunity

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In 2023, it is estimated that “over 347 million metric tonnes of electronic garbage will [have been] created globally that will not be recycled.” Not pounds or kilos. Tons.

There is no way to fully appreciate the harm that will come to people, and the ecological systems that sustain us with a number that large. No matter how you slice it, the figure is devastating. Devastating for the people around the world who will be dealing with the pollution, those who will be forced to mine and extract the raw materials in inhumane conditions for our newer modeled devices, and for the countless other disasters that will continue to mount in the face of our economic system’s relentless consumption.

This figure, however, is not devastating to some. The World Economic Forum (WEF), which presents itself as the hub of rational and “smart” policies, claimed that e-waste is not a problem—it’s a financial opportunity. And 347 million tons of e-waste sends a positive message: business is booming.

Of course, the WEF is not the only peddler of these ideas. More and more we see savvy marketers and centrist policy-thinkers talk about the vast opportunity of e-waste. Their idea is fairly simple and seemingly a mid-21st century application of “when life gives you lemons” philosophy. In other words: since we have so much e-waste, why not use it to grow the economy in new ways? Yes, e-waste is a problem, but if we use smart business tactics and policies, we can turn things around. Whether it’s improved product design, bio-engineered rare earth metal-eating bacteria, recycling robots, or AI, something down the line can solve the hairy e-waste problem.

Step down from the lofty heights of Davos and its crisp mountain air, however, and the picture is far less encouraging. In the U.S. the average family produces 115 pounds of e-waste every year. This totals up to 6.9 million tons annually, according to data from US PIRG. In the meantime, the federal government’s efforts to combat the problem are stalled. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) page on the e-waste problem is a time capsule, referencing initiatives and events from the Obama Administration. The most recent development noted there? EPA’s participation in the launch of the UNIDO-GEF project in 2019.

Repair is Different

Repair, however? Now, that’s something to get excited about. It fuels other industries. It reduces the harmful effects of mining, manufacturing, and endless consumption. Our production has consequences both for us and others, but repair works to heal both the planet and our ideas about disposability.

Now, e-waste can indeed be a business opportunity for recyclers and repairers. And it’s a better job-creator when we look to e-waste streams for what can be repaired or refurbished instead of just shredding everything for commodity value. Repair creates 200+ jobs for every 1000 tons of e-waste, compared to just 15 recycling jobs.

But the dangerous logic of WEF’s “e-waste as an opportunity” is to assume that we can keep on going along as we have been: extracting, producing, and disposing of electronics with abandon. Among the most important and needed reforms are those for the workers who are placed in physically and economically precarious positions so that electronics consumption can continue to grow, but who don’t currently share in the profits of our growing non-circular economy.

So who will benefit from the circular economy to come? As things stand: the same types of people at the WEF who are proposing we expand this circular economy fueled by smart solutions created by them. But let’s hope that their voices and ideas aren’t the only ones in the room when the time comes to make real change happen.

More News

  • John Deere partners with Space X to connect ag equipment: John Deere has partnered with SpaceX to provide satellite communications (SATCOM) to farmers, the companies announced. The partnership will utilize SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation to address rural connectivity challenges in agriculture. It will connect both new and existing farming equipment through satellite internet service and ruggedized satellite terminals. Elon Musk expressed enthusiasm for the partnership, highlighting its benefits for farmers. John Deere dealers will install ruggedized Starlink terminals and 4G LTE JDLink modems on compatible machines to activate the solution.
  • Closed ecosystem devices could soon be a thing of the past: The right to repair movement is gaining traction, challenging closed ecosystem practices in various industries, including technology, agriculture, healthcare, and automotive. As the movement gains momentum, consumers are gaining emerging legal rights to fix their own appliances, devices, and equipment without relying solely on manufacturers and authorized repair providers. This could threaten the closed ecosystem practices of many industries, including those in the tech space.
  • EU Commission extends ‘right to repair’ to include bicycles: Members of European Parliament (MEPs) adopted measures to promote product repairs over buying new ones that now include bicycles. The goal is to support independent repair markets and prevent manufacturers from obstructing repairs.