Western societies generate huge amounts of digital waste as we seek to regularly update our smart phones, tablets, PCs, TVs and other technology gadgets to the latest model and to buy new electronic goods more frequently. We no longer even seem to consider the possibility of repairing a tech gadget or sticking with a phone that is just a couple of years old. But what becomes of all the old, unwanted electronic devices?
As reported in the Guardian much of this waste ends up in massive dumps in China and Ghana but some items will be repaired, where possible, and then sold or reusable components will be removed.
It is ironic that many of these devices were originally produced in China, shipped to the consumer in the UK and when no longer required are shipped back to China to be disposed of. But there are organisations seeking to change this situation, for instance the Electronics Take Back Coalition (ETBC), and encourage responsible recycling of electronic items.
In the UK we recycle food and garden waste, glass, paper, and some plastics with some regions recycling over 60% of household waste produced and yet we recycle much less when it comes to electronic items or e-waste at around only 13%.
But the e-waste problem is not only generated by Western countries, there are also increasing numbers of consumers in Africa, India and China itself, and the annual amount of e-waste produced is growing fast.
So what is the solution to the growing amount of e-waste?
Clearly recycling and reusing materials from unwanted technology devices forms part of any potential solution but it is also consumers’ attitudes towards new technology that needs to change, in addition to how manufacturers reuse components.
It will also help change the situation if designers of new technology consider their environmental responsibilities by considering what materials they specify for use in their designs. New materials are being developed from natural products such as soya and marine organisms to eventually replace petroleum-based components.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium and more than 20,000 pounds of copper could be recovered by recycling 1 million 1m mobile phones so there is also a financial incentive to managing our e-waste in a more sustainable way.