By Eleanor Yeo, Columbia GRC
The Status Quo
It has been no secret that humankind is facing an increasingly dire environmental crisis, with human demands for ecological resources often outpacing Earth’s ability to regenerate, to detrimental effects. In fact, Earth Overshoot Day 2020 fell prematurely on August 22, 2020, marking the date where humanity has exhausted Earth’s resource budget for the year. This can be partly attributed to the world’s fastest-growing waste stream –– electronic waste (e-waste). Humanity’s quenchless demand for electronic products, such as smartphones, laptops, lifestyle devices to name a few –– desired not only for convenience’s sake, but also as status symbols –– have contributed to the “tsunami of e-waste”, as the UN had termed. In 2019 alone, approximately 54 million metric tonnes of e-waste had been produced worldwide. On average, 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced each year, the rough equivalent in weight to 4,500 Eiffel Towers. With inaction, this could rise exponentially to over 120 million tonnes by 2050.
Another problem emerging in tandem with the rapidly growing e-waste stream, is that of processing e-waste itself. Not only can processing e-waste be harmful to human health, given the exposure to toxic fumes or contact with harmful materials, improper disposal of e-waste also proves damaging to the environment. Combined, it is clear that confronting the growing e-waste problem is an environmental imperative, as part of our larger fight for sustainable industries, and to alleviate the effects of climate change.
Tackling the e-waste problem requires both hard and soft measures. Firstly, encouraging ethical tech consumerism is a key component in facilitating the reduction of e-waste, and in driving more sustainable industry practices. Cultivating ethical tech consumerism comes in a two-pronged approach –– firstly, slowing down and secondly, being mindful of our tech consumption.
Slowing Down Tech Consumption
Slowing down tech consumption is a practical measure that can go a long way in reducing the e-waste stream. The next time a shiny, new product is out on the market, be it a smartphone or new laptop model, ask yourself –– do you really need it? By delaying our technology upgrades, we can work towards cutting down the production of e-waste, and preventing more electronic products being in circulation than necessary. Another sustainable practice is to regularly maintain our existing devices, and opt to repair or modify it when needed, rather than switching it out for a new one. The benefits of this are manifold. Not only does this reduce our ecological footprint, it also empowers consumers to take charge of their tech usage, instead of being swept up in a tech upgrade cycle that tech companies propel us towards, with their constant churning out of new electronic products.
Mindful Tech Consumption
Mindful decisions about tech consumption are also a crucial means of encouraging ethical tech consumerism, particularly with regards to impacting e-waste production. In the broader context of ethical tech consumerism, we typically understand consumer messaging as a pivotal vehicle of shaping company behavior. Consumer messaging comes in the form of taking one’s business elsewhere, when one feels uncomfortable with, or does not believe in a brand’s behavior or approach. For example, tech company Uber’s slew of sexual harassment scandals in 2018, prompted floods of consumers to switch over to alternative ride-hailing platforms like Lyft. This eventually culminated in a movement known as #DeleteUber. Such damage to brands’ revenue flow and reputation can be strong incentives for companies to change their behavior, or take active steps to redress harmful practices. In the same vein of ethical tech consumerism, consumers can discourage e-waste production by being mindful of tech companies’ values and practices, and by actively boycotting or switching away from companies known for wasteful, excessive e-waste accumulation.
Ethical Tech Production
Of course, it takes two hands to clap. A key element of mindful tech consumption is to in turn encourage ethical tech production –– another central measure with which we can begin to tackle the e-waste problem. Tech companies are inherently designed to be profit-driven, which often creates the problem of planned obsolescence. This business strategy is used by tech companies to intentionally design products to become obsolete or function sub-optimally within a given timeframe –– for example, shortened product lifespan, requiring updated designs and software, or discontinuing support for older models. Their motive for doing so is to maximize profits by forcing consumers to purchase newer electronic products more frequently, often at the expense of both consumers and nature’s resources. A prominent example is that of big tech company Apple, which was embroiled in a controversy known as “Batterygate”. The controversy first emerged in late 2016, when iPhone users began experiencing unexpected device shutdowns, and voiced out such concerns on Reddit and other technology blogs. Subsequently, in December 2017, Apple admitted to purposely slowing down iPhone batteries, but claimed the measure was aimed at prolonging battery life. Regardless of intention, their deliberate act of slowing down the batteries pushed consumers to upgrade to newer smartphone models, out of a sense of practicality and necessity now that their current models functioned at slower paces. This is but one example of planned obsolescence, which contributes to much of the constant generation of e-waste.
Going forward, a relook at these tech companies’ business models are in order. Perhaps, companies can envision a device-as-a-service (DaaS) business model –– where devices are offered as paid services to consumers. Such an ownership model would incentivize manufacturers to ensure that resources are allocated efficiently, for devices (now owned by companies themselves) to function at optimal capacity.
Improve E-Waste Management Strategies
Alongside these above-mentioned measures to pre-emptively reduce e-waste generation, there is also a need to improve e-waste management strategies, to ensure e-waste is disposed of properly. Stricter legislation on tech companies can expand producer responsibility, such that companies are mandated to be responsible for their products’ e-waste management and disposal. Fortunately, such practices are already underway. The New York State Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act requires manufacturers to provide consumers with free and convenient methods of e-waste recycling in the state. Similar obligations should be extended across the board, ideally in as many countries as possible. Meanwhile, consumers themselves also have to be cognizant of proper e-waste recycling procedures, and actively engage in such practices. However, these are all reactive measures to mitigate effects of e-waste already produced –– re-using or minimizing tech consumption are still ultimately the most impactful ways of reducing our material footprint.
Adopting a mixture of the aforementioned measures, will contribute to the aim of a circular economy –– where we ensure electronic products currently in circulation function at their highest working capacities at all times, or remain so for as long as possible. This would ensure resources are not used fleetingly or wasted, but rather, re-used and hence retaining more value. Doing so would require an all hands on deck approach, from entrepreneurs to academics. From non-profit leaders, particularly, we need bold solutions and expertise in driving such a significant upheaval of the current wasteful productions of electronic devices. By investigating best courses of action and actively advocating for tackling the e-waste problem, nonprofits can pull their weight in shaping a more sustainable, environmentally-conscious tech industry.
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