The proliferation of digital devices has already become a big problem for the planet, but it’s still not receiving the attention it should. Once they come to the end of their useful lives, electronics just get discarded. The recycling rate is still poor, despite the fact they contain valuable minerals that could be used once more and have economic value. Now, scientists are calling to ramp up the recycling of e-waste, describing the expansion of mining as unsustainable.
A circular economy
The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), a UK science organization, says there has to be a global effort to mine e-waste instead of continuing mining the Earth. The RSC has started a global campaign to highlight the unsustainability of continuing to mine all the precious elements used in consumer technology instead of further recycling them.
“Developing a circular economy where minerals used in tech devices are salvaged and repurposed could help us to bypass supply chain issues in the future while also helping to reduce environmental impacts,” Tom Welton, head of RSC, said in a statement. “It’s essential that governments and businesses do more to develop a circular economy.”
New research done by the RSC revealed a growing demand from consumers for more sustainable technology. The organization carried out a global survey into people’s attitudes towards technology, sustainability, and precious minerals, asking participants about their purchasing and recycling habits and their attitudes towards sustainability.
The survey found that people are eager to opt for more sustainable technology options, but also seem frustrated due to the lack of accurate information about the topic, and often feel confused. Over 60% of consumers would switch to rivals of their preferred tech brands if goods were done sustainably and 70% said it was difficult and expensive to repair their electronics.
At the same time, three-quarters of those surveyed worldwide believe governments should be taking urgent action to tackle the e-waste crisis before the situation gets worse. Over half said they worry about the environmental effect of the unused tech devices they have at home but said not to know what to do with them.
“Not only do we need governments to overhaul recycling infrastructure and tech businesses to invest in more sustainable manufacturing practices, but we also need greater public and private investment in research to enable chemical to progress methods of separating critical raw materials from electronic waste for recycling purposes,” Welton said.
The challenges of e-waste
A record 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste were generated worldwide in 2019, up 21% in just five years, according to a UN report. E-waste is also predicted to reach 74 million metric tons by 2030, almost doubling its actual figures in 15 years. This makes e-waste the fastest-growing domestic waste stream on a global scale, the UN said.
The growing figures are triggered by the high consumption of electronic equipment, short life cycles, and limited options for repair. Only 17% of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled, the UN found. This means that high-value materials valued at US$57 billion were mostly dumped or burned rather than collected for treatment and reuse. So recycling electronics is not only an environmental choice but one that could yield economic benefits.
Electronics contain dozens of different elements, many of which are technically recoverable, though there are economic limits set by the market. E-waste has precious metals including gold, silver, copper, platinum, and palladium. It also has valuable bulky materials such as iron and aluminum, along with plastics that can be recycled.
Governments have developed national e-waste policies and legislation to deal with the growth of end-of-life electrical and electronic products. Such policies layout plans and indicate what can be achieved by a society, institution, or company. However, even in countries where legally binding policies are implemented, enforcement is still a big challenge.
“In the nearer term, we urge everyone to be more conscious about how they use and reuse technology. Before you dispose or replace it, ask yourself if it really needs replacing. Could it be repaired or updated? If it can’t be sold or donated, could it be recycled?” Welton said.