Many of us think we know what electronic waste is because we wonder what to do with devices we no longer want or need. It's the old cellphone and its charger stuffed in the drawer. It's that old laptop, monitor or printer packed behind the door or in the basement.
Waste arises ubiquitously, but unevenly, throughout the lives of electronics, not only when users discard their devices. No amount of post-consumer recycling can recoup the waste generated before consumers purchase their devices.
Waste from mining
Data on waste generation typically separate producer wastes, such as those from mining, and consumer wastes such as those from households. But there are problems with such division.
It makes the mistake of thinking producer waste and consumer waste are two separate things instead of flip sides of the same coin in industrial systems. It also makes the mistake of presuming consumers have much in the way of meaningful choice in what their electronics are made of.
Electronics contain a wide variety of materials. One important example is copper. The electronics industry is the second-largest consumer of copper. Only the building and construction sector uses more.
Similarly, the manufacture of flat panel displays, like those that go into televisions and computer monitors, releases fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-GHGs), some of the most powerful and persistent of the heat-trapping emissions.
Minting a new bitcoin, for example, can produce seven to 12 tonnes of CO₂ per coin. Researchers estimate that electricity use for electronics in businesses and homes are responsible for about 2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. By 2040 those emissions could account for 6-14% of total global greenhouse gas releases.
Fixing the e-waste issue
Post-consumer recycling of electronics will never be enough, we need to be able to repair — and upgrade — the devices we already have, if we are to slow our production of e-waste.
The automobile, food and pharmaceutical industries have to show their products meet certain safety standards before they are put on the market. Why not demand the same of the electronics industry?
Requiring electronics manufacturers to make products that are materially safer, durable and repairable would be important steps in mitigating waste from electronics throughout their life cycle in ways that post-consumer recycling on its own will never achieve.
The Conversation Africa The Conversation Africa is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. Its aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues, and allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation. Go to: https://theconversation.com/africa
About the author
Josh Lepawsky, associate professor of geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
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