1. The Biggest Problem With E-Waste? What We Don’t Know
When your phone stops working or you trade up for a newer model, where does it go? Like any electronic device — from laptops to lamps, washing machines to flat-screen TVs — it doesn’t just disappear. It becomes electronic waste, or e-waste — a fast-growing category of trash that in 2016 alone added up to a hefty 44.7 million metric tons (49.3 million tons) worldwide, according to The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, a new report published by the United Nations University, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Solid Waste Association. That’s the weight equivalent of close to 25 million passenger cars.
Even though that e-waste contains billions of dollars’ worth of precious metals and other valuable components, just 20 percent was officially tracked and properly recycled in 2016, according to the new report. The remaining 80 percent? It’s not consistently documented, and most of it is likely dumped, traded or recycled in haphazard, potentially harmful ways. When disposed of incorrectly, for instance by open burning, e-waste can harm people and the environment.
The three organizations produced The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017 to draw attention to the threat of e-waste, which they project will climb to 52.2 million metric tons (57.5 million tons) by 2021. By building awareness of the nature and scope of the problem, they aim to increase global reporting on e-waste as a first step toward minimizing waste production, reducing illegal disposal and boosting recycling and the economic benefits it offers.
The report notes that of the more than 190 countries on Earth, only 41 collect international statistics on e-waste, leaving much of the world’s people with little more than anecdotal awareness of where their e-waste ends up. And while experts know that wealthier nations dump lots of e-waste in lower-income countries, there are no decent statistics tracking exact numbers.
Because global data aren’t available, the report’s findings are estimates based on a series of statistical procedures. After noting the total weight of all electronic devices sold since 1980, the researchers calculated when products were likely discarded based on their estimated lifespan. By comparing estimates of discarded devices with recorded e-waste statistics, they approximated how much waste is generated and recycled in each of five regions — Asia, Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Oceana.
Some governments are responding. By 2017, 66 percent of the world’s population was covered by some sort of national e-waste regulation, compared to 44 percent just three years prior — a jump largely due to India, which tightened its e-waste management rules in 2016. The report notes, however, that no guarantee exists that regulations are enforced effectively, and even among countries with rules on the books, many don’t cover all kinds of e-waste. It calls for enhanced efforts to develop e-waste policies and improve e-waste reporting as key steps toward correcting these deficits.
Article source: ensia.com
2. How smartphones are heating up the planet
When we think about climate change, the main sources of carbon emissions that come to mind for most of us are heavy industries like petroleum, mining and transportation.
Rarely do we point the finger at computer technologies.
In fact, many experts view the cyber-world of information and computer technologies (ICT) as our potential saviour, replacing many of our physical activities with a lower-carbon virtual alternative.
That is not what our study, recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, suggests.
Having conducted a meticulous and fairly exhaustive inventory of the contribution of ICT —including devices like PCs, laptops, monitors, smartphones and tablets — and infrastructure like data centres and communication networks, we found that the relative contribution of ICT to the total global footprint is expected to grow from about one per cent in 2007 to 3.5 per cent by 2020 and reaching 14 per cent by 2040.
That’s more than half the relative contribution of the entire transportation sector worldwide.
Another disconcerting finding is that all this extraordinary growth is mostly incremental, essentially shattering the hope that ICT will help reduce the global carbon footprint by substituting physical activities with their virtual counterparts.
The impact of smartphones
Perhaps the most surprising result of our study was the disproportionate contribution of smartphones relative to the overall ICT footprint.
We found that the relative emissions share of smartphones is expected to grow from four percent in 2010 to 11 per cent by 2020, dwarfing the individual contributions of PCs, laptops and computer displays.
In absolute values, emissions caused by smartphones will jump from 17 to 125 megatons of CO2 equivalent per year (Mt-CO2e/yr) in that time span or a 730 per cent growth.
The lion’s share of this footprint (85 to 95 per cent) will be caused not by the use of the device, but rather by its production. That includes, in addition to the manufacturing energy, the energy for material mining for gold and the so-called rare-earth elements like yttrium, lanthanium and several others that today are almost exclusively available only from China.
Another guilty participant in this excessive carbon footprint are the phone plans that encourage users to get a new smartphone every two years. That accelerates the rate at which older models become obsolete and leads to an extraordinary and unnecessary amount of waste.
These findings pertain to the device side.
Every text, download, email uses server energy
On the infrastructure side, we predict the combined footprint of data centres and communications networks will grow from 215 megatons of C02 equivalent a year (Mt-CO2e/yr) in 2007 to 764 MtCO2-e/yr by 2020, with data centres accounting for about two-thirds of the total contribution.
For comparison purposes, the entire carbon footprint of Canada was about 730 MtCO2-e in 2016 and is expected to decrease by 2020.
The growth in smartphones and data centres aren’t unrelated.
Indeed, it’s the dizzying growth in mobile communications that are largely driving the pace for data centres. For every text message, video download, photo exchange, email or chat, there’s a 24/7 power-hungry server in some data centre that’s making it happen.
It’s the energy consumption that we don’t see.
Software companies spur growth
Finally, and perhaps the most ironic aspect of all this, is that its software that is driving the overall growth in ICT as a whole, devices and infrastructure included.
Software companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo boast some of the largest data centres in the world. The rise in dominance of the mobile operating systems, namely Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, along with the millions of mobile applications that are built on top of those platforms, has spawned the mobile communication age.
The incredible —as well as unsustainable— growth in the emission footprint of all this hardware, is there for only one purpose: To support and serve the software universe.
In other words, while it’s the hardware that does all the dirty work, it’s the software that’s calling all the shots.
The way out?
At the societal level, we must demand that all data centres run exclusively on renewable energy.
At the individual level: Hold on to your smartphone for as long as you can, and when you do upgrade, make sure you recycle your old one. Sadly, only one per cent of smartphones are being recycled today.
Article source: theconversation.com
3. Each U.S. Family Trashes 400 iPhones’ Worth of E-Waste a Year
Imagine a 176-pound (80 kilograms) pile of discarded products with a battery or plug in your living room. That’s how much e-waste the average American household of four throws out every year.
Around the world, as incomes rise and prices fall, the yearly e-waste mountain is growing, reaching 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) in 2016, according to the latest data available, released Wednesday. That includes old refrigerators, television sets, vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, mobile phones, computers, and much more. That amount would fill 1.23 million 18-wheel (40-ton) trucks—put them nose to tail and they form a line from New York to Bangkok and back.
This e-waste mountain is expected to grow another 17 percent by 2021 to 52.2 million metric tonnes. This makes it the fastest-growing part of the world’s domestic waste stream, according to “The Global E-waste Monitor 2017,“ which published Wednesday. The Monitor is a collaborative effort of the United Nations University (UNU), the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Solid Waste Association.
In 2016, the world e-waste average was 13.5 pounds (6.1 kilograms) per person, or for a family of four 54 pounds (24.5 kg). That’s 3.3 times less than the average American/Canadian family.
Towers of TVs
What happened to all those big, old tube TVs that were replaced by flat screens? It entirely depends on where you live. In the U.S., about 70 percent were collected separately, although some states do better than others.
Some of the old TVs were recycled domestically, but significant amounts were exported to Mexico, China, and Nigeria. Electronic goods like TVs, laptops, printers, and so on are considered hazardous waste (because they often contain toxic heavy metals like lead and mercury). There is a ban on international exports under the Basel Convention, but the U.S. did not ratify this. That has left the transport of spent e-waste overseas a controversial practice. (See photos of workers in India “mining” toxic e-waste.)
About 30 percent of the e-waste in the U.S. gets landfilled, incinerated, recycled informally, exported for dumping, or simply left somewhere. That’s the fate of 80 percent of the world’s e-waste in 2016, according to the Monitor.
“We’re throwing away at least $55 billion in recoverable materials by failing to recycle all of that e-waste,” said Vanessa Gray of the International Telecommunication Union in an interview.
These recoverable materials include gold, silver, copper, coltan, platinum, palladium, and other high-value metals. If all the metals were recovered from 100,000 phones, they’d yield an estimated 5.3 pounds (2.4 kilograms) of gold, more than 1,984 pounds (900 kilograms) of copper, 55 pounds (25 kilograms) of silver, and more. That’s about $250,000 dollars worth of metals, depending on current prices.
“We’re wasting valuable resources and risk future production of these devices without recycling the materials,” said Ruediger Kuehr, head of UNU’s Sustainable Cycles Programme in Bonn, Germany.
The Consumer’s Role
Electronics have a big eco-footprint, meaning their manufacture consumes a lot of energy and water, along with valuable and sometimes scarce resources, making recycling and recovery a key way to reduce the impact on the planet. However, recycling e-waste isn’t always easy, Kuehr told National Geographic. A mobile phone can contain 40 to 60 different elements. There is often little interest by manufacturers in making electronic devices repairable or easily recyclable, he said, in constant pursuit of new sales.
While the public is asking for healthier, chemical-free foods, few are looking for “healthy” electronics. “Consumers are only interested in price and performance. That needs to change,” said Gray.
One thing the public would like to see is universal, interchangeable chargers for phones and laptops. “It’s shocking that manufacturers needlessly require different chargers from one model to the next,” Gray said. Last year the ITU approved a new environmentally friendly standard for a universal charger for laptops and other portable devices. But uptake by the industry remains to be seen.
Shifting the business model to providing services rather than products could also help reduce the amounts of e-waste, said Kuehr. Car-sharing, which is becoming more popular in urban centers, is one example because people don’t need to buy their own wheels. Cloud computing and storage are others.
Article source: nationalgeographic.com