Too much of a good thing is also bad, it is said. In terms of rising number of gadgets and resultant e-waste around us, the above refrain surely makes a lot of sense. The question that may beg an answer is what is e-waste in the first place? The term e-waste is referred to electronic waste. It’s an umbrella term, which incorporates pretty much everything that has a plug, a microprocessor and runs on electricity or battery. They include smartphones, analog mobile phones, calculators, cameras, microwaves ovens, refrigerators, transistor, TVs, wi-fi modems, personal computers, laptops, monitors, air conditioners and many others.
Over the last 25 years these connected devices have brought tremendous ease in our lives as their numbers have grown. The strategy of “saturation-penetration” has resulted in a society that is hyper connected, generating gigabytes of information, leading to ever more powerful gadgets that increase the scope and depth of connectivity in our daily lives. However, this positive feedback loop has also resulted in an unintended consequence of piling mass of waste, which sadly isn’t virtual but actual and takes up a lot of space and poses extreme health hazards too.
“Tsunami of waste”
Till a few years ago electronic waste wasn’t considered worth enough to be categorized as a separate waste segment but within eight short years they have come to overwhelm the civilization from individual homes to landfills.
In 2014 the total e-waste generated globally stood at 41 million metric tons while this year it was 48.5 million metric tons, a jump of 19.8 percent. If the global acquisition rate of smart devices continues than according to the UN report (Global e-Waste Monitor 2018) we would be overwhelmed by a “Tsunami of e-waste” producing 120 million metric tons of e-waste annually by 2050. The Times of India in its info-graphics (dated January 26-01-2019) says that the total amount of e-waste in 2018 alone was equivalent of 125000 jumbo jets. These many jets haven’t been produced as yet. So the seemingly small gadgets in our homes have a much larger environmental impact than we credit them for. While every country, at least a small digitally active section of the society in every country, is guilty of generating their share of e-waste, there is no price for guessing who are the usual suspects here. Mostly the highly developed and consequently the most connected and digitally hyperactive societies of North America, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea are the ones generating more than fare share of e-waste. They dump this uncomfortable cargo on to countries like Egypt, Brazil, Ghana and Eastern Europe. Countries like China and India are unique as they are generating their own huge pile of e-waste as well as receiving it from the developed destinations.
A big unknown
Till today policy makers around the world have not been able to evolve an international consensus or a national plan to effectively deal with e-waste. There are many entrepreneurs and some geeks who have created patented technologies and processes to deal with the problem but mostly the politicians and policymakers as well as large manufacturers of these items world over are either groping in the dark or acting like ostrich, hoping the problem will somehow vanish.
As such today 80 percent of the e-waste either lies in our houses, or sold as scrap, which is a very poor substitute of professional recycling or is thrown into landfill.
So if we go back to our jumbo jet analogy, today waste amounting to a total of 100000 jumbo jets is thrown into landfill every year or 800 laptops every second.
A pile of opportunity
The seemingly daunting and gloomy picture presented by the growing pile of e-waste also hides a billion dollar opportunity for recycling and circular economy. The same UN report says that the present e-waste is worth $62 billion annually, if right protocols are applied by the companies and local as well as national governments.
It is because this waste is phenomenally rich in many metals some of them rare like indium and palladium. They also contain gold, copper, iron and nickel along with ceramic, silicon, industrial plastic etc.
If at 48 million metric tons the global value of e-waste stands at $62 billion than by 2050 when the e-waste generation would be at 120 million metric tons the value would be a $ 180 billion at current price. Even today $62 billion is more than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 123 nations.
So clearly this is the business opportunity that needs to be harnessed with right amount of will and consistency. New out of the box systems need to be in place. Right now small-scale companies around the world are working in the field of recycling e-waste by extracting various minerals and other materials from the discarded products and selling them to companies up the manufacturing chain.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The present lot doesn’t have the ambition or the ability to handle the gigantic task at hand.
A more comprehensive plan is the need of the hour and a “cradle to cradle” design approach embedded in product manufacturing will have deeper and far reaching consequences than the present “cradle-to-grave” approach. The large manufacturers will have to install their own facilities for recycling and would also need to invest in their product design to minimize waste as much as possible at the source itself. The product should also be designed in a manner that it’s easy to dis-assemble it and send every last nut and bolt into various recycling units.
In the new approach the companies can enter into an agreement with the consumers for a time frame ranging from 3 to five and up to 10 years depending upon the product. Under the agreement the company will buyback the product and offer a decent discount to the consumer who comes back with the old product in reasonably good condition that natural deterioration due to daily use offers. This product will go to their recycling plants.
This way the company will have a steady flow of raw material or at least a large part of it and captive consumer base while the consumer will get new and energy and resource efficient products at a competitive price at right intervals.
It can be a win-win situation for both. However, if the companies indulge in profit maximization by offering only nominal discounts and jack up prices of new products under the garb of inflation and proprietary royalty, people would rather use their old stuff longer than they should and will have no motivation to trade off the older equipment. In time it would increase the pressure on landfill, increase the cost of material acquisition of the companies and would lead to bad press in an age of environmentally aware world (read press and the NGOs).
So to save the company and the consumer, both should sit down and evolve a future strategy of product design, delivery and consumer engagement so that both can ride the “tsunami of e-waste” rather than being swept by it.
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