E-waste Problem Lingers, But Hopeful Signs Emerging

Carl Weinschenk
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Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2016

The problem of e-waste, which has been growing for decades, shows no signs of receding in terms of the amount of retired products that are produced. The good news, however, is that the current focus on environmental issues appears to be creating an atmosphere in which more substantial actions are possible.

Curbed lays out the e-waste problem, which is pretty straightforward: People buy huge amounts of electronic equipment. Those numbers continue to grow. Two things are true of that equipment: Only a small portion gets recycled or carefully destroyed when its useful life ends and the vast majority of the equipment contains dangerous elements.

The numbers are staggering:


According to the United Nations Global E-Waste Monitor, roughly 46 million tons of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2014. Only 7.1 tons were recycled or reused, slightly more than the 6.6 million tons of screens that ended up in trash heaps that year. Those numbers are expected to rise by 4 to 5 percent annually for the foreseeable future, and the excitement over new technology at CES suggests as much.

Two pieces of good news stand out here. The first is that recycling is increasing. The second is that the market for more consumer-conscious devices is growing. Entrepreneurs, Patrick Sisson writes, are developing modular smartphones featuring replaceable parts and longer lifespans that are being built by greener supply chains.

A third piece of good news was related by Rachel Cernansky at GreenBiz. In addition to the steps described by Sisson, she reports on concerted efforts to remove dangerous elements such as lead and hexavalent chromium from the mix. That won’t reduce the volume of e-waste, but will cut down on the threat it poses to those who live and work in the repositories, which usually are in developing regions, and the environment in general.

The story suggests that much of this is in the talking phase:

At the United Nations Environment Program–hosted International Conference on Chemicals Management in Geneva last fall, participants, including more than 100 governments, non-governmental organizations and some industry representatives, signed a resolution detailing initiatives for reducing hazardous chemicals in electronics. Those initiatives include promoting public and private partnerships focused on product stewardship and extended producer responsibility; encouraging electronics designs that reduce the need for hazardous chemicals and allow materials to be recovered; working with retailers to expand sustainable options for consumers; and adopting policies that work toward hazardous chemical reduction.

The two caveats: The moves at the UN could be more photo ops than hard and fast commitment and replacing the dangerous elements isn’t always easy.

The problem is a big one. Stories at The Smithsonian and The Sydney Morning Herald detail how insidiously awful these dumping grounds are, with visits to Ghana and Delhi. As terrible as the areas are, they are part of the local economies and won’t just go away.

Perhaps there is hope that people are finally paying attention, however: The Electronic Recyclers International, Samsung and the Consumer Technology Association held an e-waste collection event at CES.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.



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