How to deal with the world’s massive e-waste problem

E-waste at epic proportions

Consumers may be familiar with the term e-waste. Though it has only gained popularity in more recent years, companies and their buyers alike are concerned with this environmental crisis more than ever.

When electronic equipment is near or at the end of its life, it is deemed e-waste. But what makes it different from other trash? Since electronics contain toxic components (including mercury, lead, and cadmium), when they decompose in the environment these materials are released. As they are extremely harmful to the human body, having tons and tons of them in the water and soil is not an ideal scenario.

The Problem is Growing

According to recent projections, the problem is going to be even grimmer in the near future. E-waste production is currently on track to reach 120 million tons per year by 2050 unless something is done to address the issue. Meanwhile, the annual value of e-waste is estimated to be over $62.5 billion—more than the GDP of most smaller countries.

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So, what’s driving this mountain of waste higher? Turns out, there are a few key culprits to blame. For one, a lack of e-waste recycling. Currently, just 20 percent is formally recycled while the remaining 80 percent is put in landfills or crudely recycled by hand in developing countries. Of course, this exposes workers to hazardous, carcinogenic substances found in the e-waste.

At the same time, increased consumer demand for new devices means more and more are discarded. With new smartphones coming out every year and electronics quality going down in many cases, there is an increased number of devices becoming e-waste. As consumers want to exchange their devices even faster, the problem will only grow.

Potential Solutions

With the public spotlight shining on e-waste, companies are working hard to give their brand a positive stance on the issue. For some, this means starting e-waste recycling facilities while others opt to create buyback programs with their devices.

Leading the charge in the fight against e-waste is Dell. They currently have plans to increase the amount of repurposed and reclaimed materials in their supply chain. In fact, they intend to make it a dramatic increase, boasting a goal of 100 million pounds of reused materials in their products by 2020.

Social activist Nithin Coca says, “Ultimately, we need a circular economy for electronics where materials are used in a closed-loop system, with little or no waste ending up in landfills.”

As more companies join in the crusade against e-waste, virtual allies can help as well. For one, the always growing Internet of Things could help with dematerialization of the electronics industry. Meanwhile, AI can help identify new solutions to discard, recycle, and reuse e-waste.

Since the growing e-waste problem isn’t going away, it is the responsibility of consumers and companies to find new ways to mitigate and manage it. This must happen before the environment and humanity are irreversibly damaged.