More Energy Needed in Battle Against E-Waste

More Energy Needed in Battle Against E-Waste

It is estimated that 50 million tonnes of electronic waste - or e-waste - was generated globally in 2018, half of which comprised personal tech devices.

Only 20% of this e-waste is recycled, with the remaining 40 million tonnes placed either in landfill, burned or illegally traded - and this despite 66% of the world’s population being covered by e-waste legislation.

Communications devices figure prominently in this avalanche of electronic refuse - smartphones, tablets, laptops and Internet of Things devices - added to increasingly by the attachment of ubiquitous sensors to growing numbers of domestic fixtures.

E-waste is now the world’s fastest growing refuse, and with only a small percentage of its reusable material, worth an estimated €55bn, ever recycled.

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum predicted that the e-waste mountain will rise to 120 million tonnes per year unless a "global reboot" based around repurposing electronics is initiated.

Research by Greenpeace estimates that more than seven billion smartphones have been produced since 2007, with the average device used for just two years.

Worse in environmental terms, the manufacture of these seven billion phones required an energy usage of 968 terawatt hours - almost the equivalent of one year’s power supply for India.

These numbers pale into insignificance when compared with the volume of electronic goods the Internet of Things supports, which could see as many as 50 billion networked devices in use by next year.

"From smart home devices to commercial sensors, it is highly likely that everything connected to the IoT will one day become obsolete - adding yet more bulk to the e-waste pile," the report warns.

WEEE Ireland, the not-for-profit organisation established by producers of electrical goods and appliances, operates the country’s largest electrical and battery recycling scheme.

It surpassed national targets again in 2018, collecting a total of 36,131 tonnes of e-waste and 856 tonnes of waste batteries for recycling.

The scheme’s recycling efforts contributed to a saving of equivalent of 220,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, or the annual carbon consumption of 4,398 hectares of trees.

Almost 50% of all the e-waste recycled was large household appliances such as dishwashers, ovens and washing machines, which can be returned to retailers for recycling upon delivery of new appliances.

Statistics estimate that 23 batteries per person are purchased in Ireland each year, with more than 12 per person hoarded or wrongly put in the rubbish bin.

The average battery type contains a variety of toxic metals, including copper, nickel, cadmium and mercury - all of which can be recovered and re-used. It requires seven times more energy to recover a ton of copper from the ground than that gained from recycling in urban mining.

"As we move towards legislation to implement the Circular Economy principles, it’s amazing to see 83% of material collected be recovered for use again in manufacturing," said Leo Donovan, WEEE Ireland chief executive.

"We will only achieve long-term change and benefits for the environment if we continue to manage our e-waste responsibly," he said.

Ireland and all other EU Member States now have Circular Economy legislation to implement, designed to increase municipal waste recycling and recovery targets, in tandem with focus activity on waste prevention, repair and reuse as well as eco-design and recovery.

The arrival of 5G - or fifth generation cellular technology - promises faster download speeds and greater power for operating the expected massive increase in the Internet of Things - but at substantial environmental cost as the e-waste stream becomes an upgrade flood to the latest internet connectivity.

Indeed, while 5G will deliver faster speeds and more reliable connections, it comes with an attached obsolescence which will undoubtedly add to the growing e-waste mountain.

Given that many mobile phone models become incompatible with software updates just a few years after being released, this process of "planned obsolescence" may be good for multinational profits, but bad for the environment.

With constant advances in technology, devices are rendered obsolete long before they become worn out. An old smartphone may be fine for texting and talking, but if it can’t remotely re-programme your TV or fridge, it will inevitably be headed to that growing e-waste tip somewhere near you.

And, even as consumers rush to buy the latest 5G model, manufacturers are already heralding the arrival of 6G as "the next game changer" in this constantly revolving circle.

"People don’t understand the magnitude of the coming transition," said John Sherigan, co-founder of ERI, the largest IT and electronics asset disposition company in the US.

"This is bigger than the change of black-and-white to colour, bigger than analogue to digital, and by many multitudes."

While over 40 countries have official e-waste statistics, the fate of a large majority of this electronic refuse is unknown.

In countries where there is no national e-waste legislation in place, it is likely treated as general land-filled waste, along with other metal or plastic wastes containing high-risk toxic pollutants that are improperly recycled.

Electronic waste from a number of EU countries is being dumped in the developing world, according to a study by the environmental group, Basel Action Network (BAN). It is illegal to export e-waste from the EU to developing countries under the Basel Convention, an international treaty to reduce the movement of hazardous waste across the world.

The report identified the UK as the worst violator, with Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland and Ireland also found to have allowed shipments to developing countries.

BAN estimates that the flow of illegal e-waste may be over 350,000 tonnes annually, enough to fill 17,500 large shipping containers.

These illegal shipments are contrary to the EU’s circular economy objectives, according to Jim Puckett, the director of BAN.

"There is far too much bemoaning illegal exports, while at the very same time the EU is hypocritically working to make such dangerous exports legal. The answer to criminal activity is not legalising that activity but rather improving enforcement to ensure the future health of Europe is not dependent on poisoning the rest of the world," he said.

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