Countries like the United States regulate where and how e-waste gets recycled, but many goods still fill landfills instead. Of the $206 billion spent on consumer electronics in the U.S. in 2012, only 29 percent of the resulting e-waste generated was recycled. The rest were simply trashed. Who even remembers what they did with their first (or third, or fifth) iPhone?
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Who is to blame? Consumers certainly have a role to play in the increase of e-waste—they’re buying the goods, after all. But manufacturers have given people fewer and fewer viable ways to keep older electronics functioning effectively. In the process, profits from device sales are way up, along with the satisfaction of these companies’ shareholders. It’s an impasse, one group pointing to the other as the ultimate source of electronic dross.
For this reason, reducing e-waste cannot fall on the shoulders of consumers or manufacturers alone. One possible alternative is to require producers of electronics to offer buy-back or return systems for old equipment. Export limits could be placed on manufacturers, too, where the quantity of goods that can be exported should be directly proportional to the amount of e-waste the company has recycled or re-used. Then there needs to be an effective way to insure that these returned devices get repurposed. Governments could give some form of tax break or rebate for companies that effectively process old equipment. And companies could reuse recovered parts from discarded goods in newer systems. Partially recycled devices could be sold in markets where buying capacity is limited. Or, they could be marketed as “reclaimed,” offering a social benefit even in wealthy markets.
Another option is recommitting to repairing smartphones and computers. Done properly, electronics repair might help reduce unemployment. Companies and NGOs could set up simple training centers where people could learn the skills, and manufacturers could provide better access to repair options and facilities. Government involvement in such programs would be extremely important, as the creation of such centers would need to contribute to broader socio-economic goals. Donors to NGOs might have a role to play in advocating for such change.
Resale is another option. Companies like Ebay and Olx offer the means, but obsolescence still hampers second-hand use. If older devices are not supported by manufacturers and developers, these gadgets end up back in landfills. Emerging economies such as Pakistan and Nigeria, where purchasing power is low, offer promising markets for the reuse of such devices. Pakistan has a thriving second- and third-hand market for older phones already; even older Nokia phones are common, complete with the monochrome snake game.
The conditions at e-waste processing facilities are dire. Devices have to be laboriously manually sorted and then disassembled. Furthermore, used electronic devices contain hazardous materials like mercury, lead, silver, and flame-retardants. They also contain small amounts of valuable raw materials, such as gold, copper, titanium, and platinum; one ton of electronic waste might yield 200 grams of gold. This sometimes makes the business of e-waste recycling unviable. Manufacturers have a role to play here, too: for example, by assisting in the creation of e-waste recycling centers in developing countries rather than using them as dumping sites.