Matthew Devitt - Writer's Blog

Matthew Devitt is a freelance copywriter based in Nürnberg, Germany. Here is a collection of articles, opinion pieces and blogs. Visit www.matthewdevitt.com

We Need To Talk About Our E-Waste Problem

1 billion smartphones were created last year - in just 9 months.

"Out of sight, out of mind.”

It’s a common expression. And when it comes to e-waste, it perfectly sums up the problem.

Computers, mobile phone, televisions, cables, MP3 players and many more items are being purchased - and disposed of - at an accelerating rate.

In fact, from 2007 until now, more than 10 billion smartphones have been created.

Just let that sink in for a second.

TEN.

BILLION.

Me personally, well, I've lost count of how many different mobile phones I've already owned. 8? 10? Maybe a dozen? It's a scary figure to think about.

The amount of worldwide e-waste generation is expected to hit a record high of 49.8 million tons in 2018, with an annual 4-5% growth.
— thebalancesmb.com

As technology keeps improving, so does our desire to upgrade to the newest model.

So what happens to the old one? Well, we haven’t really thought that far ahead. And we really need to. Right now I'm writing this on a shiny Macbook Air, but I’m sure it won't be too long before I'll be looking to upgrade to a newer, faster, shinier version.

So what do we do with all of this e-stuff when we don’t need it anymore? Well, generally we just throw it in the bin or take it to the dump, and forget all about it. 

Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

These amazing gadgets contain some nasty stuff

Apart from the sheer size and weight of all the unwanted items, most e-waste (especially computers and mobile phones) contains dangerous chemicals and harmful metals (lead, mercury and cadmium just to name a few), which are all required to make products in the first place.

Mobile phones are largely made from non-renewable materials and are not biodegradable. Plus, they generally require a huge amount of energy and resources to mine and gather the raw materials in the first place. Mobile phones and computers actually contain quite a lot of copper, gold and silver which can be reused - but the biggest challenge is extracting these materials safely from the discarded items.

These chemicals and metals, if not recycled or disposed of properly, invariably end up in the soil or in our water supply, where they can do a scary amount of damage.

Actually, it’s more like a terrifying amount of damage.

Exposure to e-waste toxins is already being found to create changes in thyroid function, changes in temperament and behaviour, and decreased lung function.

E-waste represents only 2% of solid waste, but 70% of the hazardous waste which is deposited in landfills.
— US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

One company called Fairphone has even produced a smartphone in arguably the safest, most environmentally-conscious way possible - using recycled, modular and ethically-sourced components. Unfortunately, performance-wise it doesn’t really stack up to brands like Apple and Samsung.

E-waste recycling is starting to gain (some) momentum

Luckily, there is a little bit of good news.

Many people aren't aware yet, but there is a growing number of organisations and companies around the world that can re-condition, re-use and re-cycle e-waste for you. In many cases, items can have up to 90% of their materials reused and recycled - and this percentage is steadily increasing. 

With great technology should come great responsibility, and I think we all need to start thinking seriously about what we do with all of our out-of-date electronic gadgets.

One cool thing I didn’t realise was - lots of huge global brands already have recycling and trade-in systems in place. Not that you’d know about them of course - they don’t really seem to promote them whatsoever.

Where can I recycle my big-brand e-waste?

Here are some links to recycling programs from the usual suspects:

Now, I’m not saying that these recycling programs are easy, or fast, or even efficient - but they are a good starting point.

There’s no doubt about it - we have a really long way to go before we’re even close to a sustainable electronics industry.

BUT, awareness is the first step in solving any problem, and so we need to get the word out.

When you next upgrade your phone, tablet or computer - put some serious thought into what you’ll do with the old one. Heck, talk to the people you’re buying the new one from and see if they’ll give you a trade-in.

You might be pleasantly surprised, and you’ll probably even save yourself some money.

The next challenge: Turning a problem into a profit

Ultimately, more than people ‘just wanting to do the right thing’ - e-waste recycling will really get going once it becomes a profitable industry in and of itself. To be honest, most people don’t realise that e-waste is already turning into an unlikely goldmine.

The US alone throws away cellphones with $60 million worth of gold and silver every year.
— Theworldcounts.com

Nothing motivates people quite like money.

Think about this:

  1. There’s hundreds of millions of discarded items sitting around out there that nobody wants.

  2. These items all contain valuable materials.

  3. Natural and virgin materials are getting harder and more expensive to procure.

Getting the idea? I mean, we could quite literally see a gold-rush of smartphone recycling in the next 10 years.

I suspect, and I hope, that e-waste recycling becomes one of the next billion-dollar industries.

Just the thought of a global problem turning into a profitable solution makes me happy.

So, I’ll grant that e-waste is a bigger issue than most people can understand. Some measures are starting to take shape - but to say there’s a big challenge ahead of us is like saying Mt Everest is ‘a pretty big hill’.

Hopefully, little by little, we can work together to move things in a more hopeful direction.

If we don’t, we’ll all end up drowning under a tidal wave of glass and metal and low-megapixel cameras.

And all the apps in the world can’t save us then.

Have you found any great places to recycle old phones and computers? Let me know in the comments below.