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Let's Be Honest, Episode 35: E-waste

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment!

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

What is e-waste?

50 million tonnes - that is how much of electronic items are discarded globally every year [1]. Only a fifth of this waste is recycled properly.

If you cook, do housework, or just wind down with good TV series at home, you probably know just how convenient using electronic devices is. It is often when an actively used home appliance breaks that we realise just how much we have grown to depend on the technological solutions than are making our everyday easier, more convenient and comfortable.

Electronic waste or e-waste refers to the electronic products that are deemed useless on account of the product being broken, unwanted or their capacity declining [2]. The most common e-waste items can be classified in groups: home appliances, such as microwaves, heaters, fans, refrigerators; communication and information technology devices, like smartphones, computers and monitors; home entertainment devices, namely, television, video game systems, stereos; electronic utilities, including, remotes, electrical cords and lamps; and office and medical equipment, such as, copiers, printers, IT servers and so on.

The term for e-waste emerged already in the 1970s, but since then many more factors have appeared that we ought to take into consideration. A 2016 report from Bonn University disclosed that the lifetime of electronic appliances continues to shrink [3]. Between 2004 and 2013, the percentage of large household appliances that had to be replaced in less than five years due to a malfunction rose from 3.5% to 8.3%, leaving a significant fraction of customers disappointed. Products that have a short lifespan are far worse for the environment than ones with a lengthier lifespan. Consider washing machines - for a washing machine that lasts 5 years the energy demand and global warming potential is 40% higher than for that of a 20-year lifespan washing machine. The frustrating part about investing in electric appliances is that there really is no way to truly estimate their lifespan - the price and product description might also be misleading. In this case it may be essential that repair services are available and affordable, that would ensure an extension to the product’s lifespan.

The heaps of e-waste are not just a courtesy of wider use of electronic devices and decreasing durability, rather it is also the consumer’s urge to purchase a new appliance prematurely, that is, prior to their current appliance’s expiration. Technological advancements keep on suffusing and, through the agency of advertising, our wish and need for more innovative technological solutions persists. The world of technology is ever-evolving. What this means is that for every home appliance or electronic device, consumer electronics and information technology sectors continue on improving their products, offering better, “smarter”, more cutting edge editions. Consumers find this reason central as to why they wish to prematurely buy a new product [3].

Dangers of e-waste

With less than 20% of e-waste properly recycled, the other 80% either end up in landfills or are recycled haphazardly, much of it by hand in underdeveloped countries. E-waste can disintegrate in microscopic traces into the sludge that pervades a landfill that it is dumped in. These harmful residues eventually collect in the earth beneath the landfill. The term for this process is known as leaching. The more metals and e-waste there are at the landfill, the more traces of these hazardous substances are detected in the groundwater. The issue is that there is such a large amount of electronic waste that the trace levels have grown dramatically over time. Below the landfill, the toxic water continues to flow. It contaminates freshwater and subsequently harms the local wildlife, and also anyone utilising the source of water. This leads to labourers being exposed to dangerous and cancer-causing elements like mercury, lead, and cadmium. Food supply systems and water sources are also at danger due to the contamination of soil and groundwater, all caused by e-waste in landfills.

The report by PACE claims that incorrect handling of e-waste is having negative effects on both health and the environment, in addition to causing a large loss of rare and expensive raw resources including gold, platinum, cobalt, and rare earth elements [4]. Up to 7% of the world's gold may now be found in e-waste, which contains 100 times more gold per tonne than gold ore does.

E-waste management

For the disposal of electronic waste, there are safe solutions, fortunately. The first and most important step is to seek out a certified e-waste recycler. For example, Basel Action Network is a non-profit organisation that connects recycling companies that are handling e-waste safely and responsibly [5]. Across Europe, The European Electronics Recyclers Association (EERA) is providing services and bringing together businesses dedicated to recycling, reusing and reprocessing electronics [6].

The electronic devices we don’t use anymore are not always broken or outdated. In this case, it is worth considering reselling them. There are various e-commerce websites for this specific purpose that could help you both get rid of unused items and earn some money. Another option is donating the devices to schools, churches or charitable organisations. What may be of no personal use anymore, institutions might find handy for educational purposes.

Many electronic manufacturers have an exchange program whereby they accept your old devices when you buy a newer model, possibly giving you a discount on your new purchase. Quite a few recycling businesses have established electronic drop-off programs and drop-off locations for devices like cell phones and tablets, and large appliances as well, which are then recycled.

Customers may use the Amazon Trade-in Program to trade in qualified gadgets, such as mobile phones, video games, and other items, that they have purchased on in exchange for gift cards. Some of these gadgets are resold by Amazon as used products, while the ones that aren't eligible for resale are recycled through its network of authorised recyclers. Other companies may also have trade-in programs of their own.

Needless to say, consumers must remain responsible not just when purchasing and using electronic devices, but also when discarding of them. With a quick search on the internet, you may as well find the safest and simplest ways to get rid of old gadgets, whether it's dropping them off at a designated spot, donating or exchanging them.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. UN Report: Time to Seize Opportunity, Tackle Challenge of E-waste | UN Environment Programme

  2. What is E-waste? Definition and Why It's Important | Great Lakes Electronics Corporation

  3. Lifetime of Electrical Appliances Becoming Shorter and Shorter | Umwelt Bundesamt

  4. A New Circular Vision for Electronics | PACE

  5. 5 Ways to Safely Dispose of Your Electronic Waste | Green Clean Guide

  6. Our History | EERA