Every fall, the hysteria surrounding Apple’s newest products becomes a global phenomenon, with millions of consumers eagerly purchasing the newest and most advanced technology in the market. 2019 was no different, with nearly 185 million iPhones being sold, coming out to roughly 350 smartphones per minute. But while tech giants like Apple and Samsung have thrived by frequently updating their offerings, little attention has been afforded to where gadgets go once they’ve been deemed “out-of-fashion.” The answer, unsurprisingly, is that it’s simply thrown away, much like old furniture or appliances. However, the scope of our electronic waste crisis has reached an extreme, with over 50 million tons being produced annually. As our digital footprint continues to grow exponentially, electronics in dumpsters will, too, forcing us to habitually adapt to the dangers of global e-waste.
E-Waste’s Global Capitals
Situated in the most populous province in China, Guiyu, a town of “only” 150,000 people, has a dangerous claim to notoriety. Here, more than 5,000 family-owned businesses take apart over a million pounds of old televisions, personal computers, smartphones, and even electronic toys annually. The purpose is simple: to extract valuable minerals like gold and copper, which can then be refurbished into consumer goods and sold for profit. However, there are currently no global standards that tech companies or waste disposal companies must meet in order to dump their e-waste in cities like Guiyu. And in the EU, where the Basel Convention explicitly forbade illegal dumping abroad, the laws have been ignored and unenforced for years. The impacts of this lack of oversight have been, to put it mildly, devastating to Guiyu’s citizens.
Studies done in Guiyu have concluded that 80% of children have dangerous levels of lead poisoning in their blood as a result of being forced to work as early as seven in order to make ends meet. Pregnant women frequently suffer miscarriages due to toxic lead fumes they inhale. Arsenic from corrupted motherboards and silicon chips has seeped into the city’s reservoir, rendering Guiyu’s groundwater as a potential carcinogen. The long-term consequences of such irresponsible dumping come in forms ranging from permanent brain damage to physical complications like paralysis and lung cancer. As new devices enter consumers’ hands, more sites like Guiyu are popping up globally. Nestled in Ghana’s capital of Accra, the district of Agbogbloshie has become the default landfill for European tech companies. It should come as no surprise that the majority of workers suffer from fatal forms of cancer before age 30, a clear warning sign to unchecked technology firms that their reckless actions are endangering millions of people.
Private Sector Efforts
Fortunately, the solution to this crisis isn’t a pipe dream. In fact, some of the most influential partners in the effort to combat e-waste dumping have been large, multinational tech companies themselves. Apple’s Environmental Responsibility Report from 2019 revealed that while the company generated roughly 6 million pounds, it also recycled over 108 million pounds of technology. Five years prior, they were recycling under 15 million pounds of their products. The company has also shown initiative to extract the rare earth metals from their devices using an advanced robot called Daisy, which can accept old devices and remove gold, cobalt, and titanium without damaging the integrity of the technology. In this way, Apple has shown a commitment to removing arguably the biggest motivating factor in e-waste collection – the minerals inside.
On the other side of the globe, the Korean tech conglomerate Samsung has been at the forefront of powerful international partnerships to encourage recycling of their devices. By the end of 2020, the company will have recycled 8 billion pounds of technology through collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in programs like the Green Power Partnership. Over 95% of the material that’s placed into a Galaxy smartphone can be recycled, one of the highest rates across the industry. The company’s generous trade-in policies also offer customers the opportunity to bring back old devices and earn hundreds of dollars towards their next purchase. By creating a meaningful financial benefit for the customer, Samsung has ensured that it too, is helping to create a more sustainable technological ecosystem.
Sweden’s Success Story
The poster child for governmental success in combating excessive e-waste has undoubtedly been Sweden. With an astounding 55.4% electronics recycling rate compared to the global average of under 20%, Sweden’s model of conservation has been nothing short of excellence. The first prong of their strategy comes through the law. Every technology producer in the nation is required to partner with a national collection firm to guarantee that products will be recycled if it is possible to do so. Additionally, the country’s EPR legislation mandates that companies explicitly label whether the product they purchased can be recycled and if so, where and how it should be done. This kind of public awareness is critical to educating the masses regarding the importance of e-recycling.
The second step that more nations should take from Sweden’s model is by improving accessibility of recycling facilities and recycling drives. City websites show citizens the nearest recycling plants, and there are almost 600 staffed facilities nationwide to ensure safe disposal of electronics. Celebrities across Sweden have been involved in the effort, with a 2015 campaign called “Elektriskt rens”, or “e-waste decluttering”, successfully prompting over 10,000 citizens to recycle more than a ton of electronics. A culture of recycling everything from paper to smartphones has become embedded in Swedish society for decades, and though such systemic change will take longer to manifest elsewhere, facilitating sustainable technology certainly doesn’t hurt.
Lastly, Sweden has rooted its sustainable technology efforts in perhaps the most valuable commodity today: data. Private companies and the government simultaneously track recycling rates in districts across the country and look for the most efficient ways to recycle while generating the least emissions. Since companies are required to publicize data regarding their own recycling efforts, the government is able to pinpoint weaknesses like an underemployed collection workforce. The result is a strong central effort aided by quantitative metrics, such as yearly recycling trends, that have helped Sweden stay on track to become a zero waste nation in just a few years.
By 2050, the World Economic Forum estimates that the global community will dump 120 million tons of e-waste annually. So far, the most dire impacts of this crisis have only been felt by vulnerable workers in places like Guiyu. The danger, however, lies in public apathy towards this cause, because as the rise of technology continues exponentially, so does our waste. Technology companies, governments, and individual consumers owe it to those being most affected by this matter to be more responsible and cautious in their consumerism – one device at a time.