Although tackling the interconnected issues of climate change, biodiversity and pollution will ultimately be the key to creating a sustainable future, de-carbonisation continues to be the key focus for most businesses.
Certainly, pressure is gradually mounting for organizations to take their nature-related responsibilities and impacts more seriously. But pollution, in general terms, tends to be a rather more neglected and misunderstood subject, with the possible exception of plastics.
UK wildlife filmmaker Sir David Attenborough raised global awareness of the challenge here a few years ago after revealing that plastic pollution is choking the life out of our oceans and killing up to a million people per year. But Beth Murphy, Waste and Circular Economy expert at professional services firm PA Consulting, believes that another major, and all too often overlooked, pollution problem is e-waste:
E-waste is a huge challenge and is arguably worse than plastic. The disposal of e-waste produces tonnes of toxic waste every year and causes irreversible damage to the environment. E-waste will spiral, and is spiralling, uncontrollably. Over the last eight years, there’ve been an estimated 420.3 million metric tons of e-waste produced around the world, and this figure is predicted to double by 2050.
As to which nations are producing the most e-waste per head, the UK is one of the worst offenders, second only to Norway – and mobile phones are a major source of this pollution. In fact, a huge 5.3 billion are expected to be discarded globally this year, according to a report by Virgin Media O2 and Hubbub called ‘Time After Time e-waste report: Insights from Gen Z’.
Some of the problem, in countries such as the UK and Norway at least, stems from the competitive nature of the market, which is constantly driving the consumption of new products. But another challenge relates to a general lack of understanding of just how detrimental e-waste can be to the environment. Murphy explains:
Although conscious consumption and waste consciousness are both growing trends in consumer retail, including in electronic goods, consumers remain generally ill-informed about this type of waste. The issue is driven by the lack of consumer education on everything from the lifecycle of electronic goods to the environmental damage caused. Part of the solution perhaps lies in addressing behaviors: consumers, for example, could be encouraged to keep their devices for longer, to invest in products that are more sustainable and easier to recycle, or be educated on where e-waste eventually ends up once it’s discarded.
Shifting mindsets about e-waste
But things are just as bad in the business world too, as Murphy points out:
Within the traditional business environment, employees expect the newest and most high-tech equipment. This means constant replacement of technology, often before it has reached end-of-life. Due to the rise in businesses providing IT – which is likely to have increased since hybrid working became the norm – employees now often own two or more separate laptops or mobile phones. There is a real need for a full mindset shift to reduce the amount of electronic equipment produced, used and disposed of.
The latter point is particularly important as huge quantities of e-waste end up in landfill. Murphy explains:
Despite attempts to monitor and control the disposal of e-waste such as the widely adopted WEEE regulations, we know that large amounts are exported to developing countries, incinerated, or sent to landfill, resulting in the likely contamination of soil, water and food.
But environmental pollution is not the only contentious issue. Another is the potential waste of valuable rare earth elements, such as scandium. In fact, points out Robert O’Mahony, Head of Sustainability at computer peripherals manufacturer, Logitech:
I believe that there’s now enough material above ground that we don’t need to extract any more, with the exception of rare Earth materials. People are now mining landfill for precious metals as so much of it has simply been thrown away. So, it’s about being getting smarter as to how we collect it and deal with it on a cross-sector basis. This means not just thinking about the life of a product in a linear way, but the life of all the materials it’s made up of in a more circular way.
Murphy agrees, pointing to the need for suppliers to adopt more environmentally-friendly product design approaches, such as modular electronics - although she does admit that such concepts are not necessarily completely ready for mass market adoption:
There are some products, such as Fairphone and Shiftphone, which have been designed with a cleaner carbon footprint. The end goal is that the devices become entirely recyclable. However, this innovative concept is not being widely adopted today because the technology of modular electronics delivers a markedly inferior user experience. Consumers largely do not want to compromise substance and form for sustainability. To create a fully-recyclable phone or electronic device that can match the excellence and desirability of market leading electronics is a real challenge.
The power of working together
This means that introducing repair schemes and return and recycle initiatives remains a more likely way forward for many businesses for the time being at least. Apple, for instance, has introduced a ‘self-service repair’ programme to enable customers to fix their own devices – although the technology’s design means it is currently only recommended for experienced technicians rather than everyday consumers.
Another possible approach for tech vendors when offering recycling services within the European Union is to apply the Digital Watermarks Initiative’s HolyGrail 2.0 technology to help improve accuracy when sorting large amounts of waste.
Ultimately though, to both boost awareness of the growing e-waste challenge and make recycling and reuse more routine and less clunky than is often the case today, cross-sector collaboration will be key. O’Mahony explains:
There’s a requirement for industry and government to move in parallel to find solutions. If you look at other parts of the world and see the level of returns or ease of ability to recycle goods, the situation is significantly improved if governments are involved. It must be made easy for consumers to choose to recycle products at end of life. So, in Europe, for example, there’s a high expectation of being able to recycle at a local municipal site and so more people do it. But that’s less true in South-East Asia where recycling rates are lower. Today the approach is often quite disjointed, but we can all do a better job collectively by working hand-in-hand with government.
Much can be learned from existing recycling processes of plastic and cardboard. Recycling rose in public consciousness because governmental policies became easier to understand and thus adopt. Brands then soon followed suit by responding to consumer demand for more recyclable products and materials. So, there’s a real need for brands, manufacturers, and policymakers to come together and create a blueprint for e-waste recycling which can be easily implemented. Simplifying the process could mean an increase in the electronic goods and materials entering the circular economy.
In the second of this two-part series to mark International E-waste Day, we’ll explore what Logitech and Virgin Media O2 are doing to reduce the e-waste generated by their own internal operations and their product lines.