December 16, 2013 // 04:40 PM EST
Image: Flickr, CC
Glaciers are melting fast but our mountains of electronic trash—old TVs, phones, computers, monitors, e-toys, small appliances—are expected to grow 33 percent in less than five years. By 2017, this e-waste will be equivalent to throwing 60 million cars on the trash heap each year. If e-recycling rates don’t improve accordingly, the bounty of materials lost to e-waste may make smartphones and gadgets much more expensive.
E-waste is already a big problem. According to a new report, in 2012, every man, woman, and child in the US hauled a 66 lbs. bag of e-waste to the curb. That’s six times more than someone in China, and ten times the average Indian’s haul.
“E-waste is exploding. I hope people will re-think their purchases of e-toys, tablets, and such this Christmas,” said not a particularly-grinchy Ruediger Kuehr, the Executive Secretary of the Solving the E-Waste Problem Initiative, which did the forecast.
“Re-think” means consider where the device is going to end up when its day is done. Despite the valuable, extricable metals like gold and coltan, and toxic materials like mercury and lead, recycling levels are still too low, Kuehr said.
The “StEP Initiative” as it’s known is a Bonn, Germany-based global partnership of UN organizations, industry, governments, non-government and science organizations.
The USA has long been the king of e-trash but in 2012 China took the title at 11.1 million tons, compared to the US’s total of 10 million tons. In 2010, China’s e-waste was estimated to be 2.3 million tons.
Overall, countries in the developing world are now the biggest generators of e-waste. which is currently defined as “anything with a battery or electrical cord,” Kuehr said.
The escalating global e-waste problem gets the interactive infographic treatment in StEP’s first-of-its-kind E-Waste World Map, which shows estimated e-waste volumes from 184 countries. (Automobiles and military equipment are not included.)
While there’s lots of information on the negative environmental and health impacts of primitive e-waste recycling methods, there has been until now little sense of how much e-waste is generated and where and what the trends might be.
Last year, China and USA accounted for nearly half of the 48.9 million metric tons global total. By 2017 this total is projected to reach 65.4 million tons with most of the growth coming from developing countries
A separate detailed analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Materials Systems Laboratory found that the US discarded 258.2 million used, whole unit computers, monitors, TVs and mobile phones in 2010. Not surprisingly, mobile phones led the way with more than 120 million tossed away. That’s close to every second person replacing their phone in 2010.
“No one wants to recycle materials from a hair dryer, so it goes to an incinerator or landfill”
About two thirds of all this was collected for reuse or recycling, because nearly all US states have recycling programs. Surprisingly only 8.5 percent of the amount collected was exported, the MIT study found. These were mostly mobile phones that ended up in Asia or in Latin America. Heavy stuff like TVs and monitors ended up in Mexico and China, but also in Venezuela and Paraguay, of all places.
If your old laptop was exported, it either went to Hong Kong or the United Arab Emirates. These are very likely transit points for further distribution in Asia and the Middle East.
“This research shows substantial increases in the US in collecting used electronics,” said Jason Linnell, Executive Director, National Center for Electronics Recycling.
However, Kuehr notes that there is very little recycling of e-toys and other small low-value electronics and appliances in the US or elsewhere.
“No one wants to recycle materials from a hair dryer, so it goes to an incinerator or landfill,” he said.
On the other hand, there is a small gold mine to be had in mobile phones. If all the metals were recovered from 100,000 phones, they’d yield an estimated 2.4 kilograms of gold, more than 900 kilograms of copper, 25 kilograms of silver and more. That’s about $250,000 dollars worth of metals, depending on current prices.
However, recycling electronics is complex. “A mobile phone will be made up of 40 to 60 different elements,” Kuehr said.
Mining and refining new metals like silver, gold, palladium, copper, and indium have major environmental impacts, including considerable emissions of greenhouse gases. And some materials are becoming scarce—and therefore far more expensive.
Without improved recycling rates, electronic devices may feasibly one day become too costly for the average person due to high material costs.
StEP is pioneering material recovery programs in Ghana, Egypt and Ethiopia for their domestic e-waste. There are high collection rates for phones, TVs or computers. Anything that can’t be repaired or reused are taken apart in an safe manner and anything of value recovered. Components require high-tech equipment to safely recover are shipped to Europe where such facilities exist.
“We think this can be self-financing. But that will require global co-operation by governments and companies.”
Companies need to design products with recycling in mind, and take back some of their components. Governments have to properly track and regulate flows of e-waste to prevent abuse. Reward systems like a discount on new devices for returning old ones will boost collection rates, he said.
“20 years from now, I don’t want my grandchild to be unable to afford a mobile phone because the metals are too expensive.”