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The only smart choice in dealing with our defunct devices is recycling

Electronic goods contain a lot of valuable metals that can be extracted, recycled or reused. (Reuters)
Electronic goods contain a lot of valuable metals that can be extracted, recycled or reused. (Reuters)
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24 Mar 2024 02:03:21 GMT9
24 Mar 2024 02:03:21 GMT9

Even as manufacturers of consumer electronics continue to line up new product launches several times a year, a report published by the UN this week revealed that the amount of “e-waste” generated around the world rose to a record 62 million tonnes in 2022.

The researchers found the amount of such waste had increased by 82 percent since 2010 and will continue to grow; by 2030, they predicted the total amount of e-waste generated around the world each year will rise by a further 30 percent to 82 million tonnes.

Even more worrying, the report states that barely 1 percent of global demand for rare earth elements, most notably lithium and nickel, which are key components in the manufacture of batteries, and a host of other key minerals needed for electronic gadgets is currently met by recycled materials.

This means almost all of these materials used for manufacturing electronics end up on ever-growing garbage heaps around the world. The amount of waste generated is increasing five times as fast as recycling.

The amount of e-waste we produce is growing by 2.6 million tonnes a year and only 22.3 percent of it was recycled in 2022. Not only did this waste come at a cost of more than $62 billion in 2022 alone, it poses a huge threat to the health of humans and all other forms of life on the planet.

Discarded products with plugs or batteries contain toxic and hazardous substances such as mercury, lead, lithium, benzene and many other chemicals known to cause damage to the brain and other body functions.

The publication of the UN report could not come soon enough. In recent years, the widespread adoption of electronics in all aspects of our lives has accelerated tremendously. This includes a significant increase in the adoption of electric vehicles; although they still represent a small percentage of the motor vehicles produced each year, the numbers will only increase.

Add to this the growing use of electronics and smart devices in all spheres of business, our homes and even public spaces, and we can expect a multifold increase in the global consumption of the materials used to manufacture these devices in the next few years.

From ever-more powerful computers, cameras and smartphones and the growing adoption of e-vehicles to the increased use of artificial intelligence and software-driven services, many more computer chips and batteries will be produced all around the world, a large proportion of which will end up in landfill if governments and regulators around the world continue to fail to monitor and control the way in which these products are disposed of.

Electronic goods contain a lot of valuable metals that can be extracted, recycled or reused in the manufacture of new products.

Ranvir S. Nayar

It would be a colossal mistake to allow the current situation, in which nothing tangible is done to regulate the management of e-waste around the world, to continue. This so-far lackadaisical approach needs to change immediately but this will happen only when significantly more public pressure is applied to governments to deal with rapidly growing mountains of e-waste.

There is a clear path to get us there. Look, for example, at how, in face of growing public awareness about the mortal threat posed by increasing plastic pollution, many governments have now banned production of some categories of plastics and imposed strict rules governing the production, use and disposal of many plastic products, most notably single-use grocery bags.

But in absence of any significant pressure on the electronics industry, the problem of managing e-waste has so far been largely ignored. Yet it is not the case that solutions are extremely difficult to imagine or implement. Europe has taken some initial steps to address this, all of which have been in the right direction, but they need to be tightened and enforced more strictly.

For instance, one of the biggest issues with electronics products is that, in wealthy countries at least, the cost of repair is often more than, or at least close to, the cost of buying a brand new product. In an attempt to tackle this, the EU has passed a law demanding manufacturers make it simpler for their products to be repaired, even outside of their own official service networks. It has also introduced a mandatory requirement that companies ensure sufficient supplies of spare parts for their products are available for a set period of time — say 5 or 10 years — so that consumers know devices can be repaired even when they are no longer the latest model.

Another requirement that has been introduced by the EU, again a no-brainer, is standardization of at least common accessories, such as chargers, across all brands. From the end of this year, for example, it will be mandatory for all smartphones, tablets and digital cameras to come with a USB-C charger.

This measure alone is expected to reduce e-waste in the EU region by at least 11,000 tonnes a year. This might seem like a very small amount, compared with the 62 million tonnes of e-waste generated annually, but it will be through the adoption of small measures such as this that the issue of e-waste will be tackled, to a large extent.

Another measure, which could be implemented even in the face of opposition from manufacturers, is to make companies more responsible for all their products throughout their life cycles, even after they stop working or when consumers want to replace them with upgraded versions.

Governments can enact legislation making it mandatory for manufacturers to “buy back” old products when consumers upgrade to a newer version, or even if they simply decide to stop using it.

Electronic goods contain a lot of valuable metals that can be extracted, recycled or reused in the manufacture of new products. By making it mandatory for manufacturers to buy back old versions of their products, therefore, governments can ensure companies invest in creating a so-called “reverse supply chain,” the purpose of which is to obtain used products from consumers, return them to the factory and recover the valuable parts and materials that can be recycled and reused.

Certainly, businesses might be opposed to some of these measures, not least because their margins are best served by selling regularly upgraded new products, and recovering and recycling their older products would force them to invest in services and processes that are nowhere near as glamorous as an exciting new product launch.

But the challenges the world faces in finding ways to deal with the rapidly rising amount of e-waste in a safe manner are now so many and so large that regulators and governments must cast aside any concerns about glamour and prestige, and instead display some grit in grappling with the problem.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is the managing editor of Media India Group and founder-director of the Europe India Foundation for Excellence.
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