Author Topic: E-Waste Is Taking Over the World. 5G Will Make It Even Worse  (Read 547 times)

Asif Iqbal

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E-Waste Is Taking Over the World. 5G Will Make It Even Worse
« on: January 25, 2021, 02:08:37 PM »
Agbogbloshie has a reputation as an e-waste hellhole, but there’s more to its story. In 2013, D.K. Osseo-Asare, an assistant professor of architecture and engineering design at Penn State, and his colleague Yasmine Abbas, a French architect and strategic designer, launched the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform, a project that aims to empower the district’s scrap workers and give a second life to e-waste. AMP provides workers with a customizable kiosk kitted out with tools and equipment they can use to dismantle, create or refurbish devices. A digital platform then connects scrap dealers to buyers, makers to materials and blueprints, and people with broken items to workers who can fix them. The project, whose network included more than 750 workers by 2018, is now looking to expand to other locations, and the Ghanaian government is also developing its own e-waste “upcycling” platform based on AMP, where discarded electronics can be made into something more valuable.

AMP is one solution to the expanding global e-waste problem, but many more solutions are needed. In 2019, the world set a record for e-waste, generating 53.6 million metric tons of it. Only 17.4 percent of discarded smartphones, computers, appliances and other devices were recycled. The rest were either sent to landfills, where they leaked toxic materials into the soil; incinerated, releasing heavy metals into the air, to the particular detriment of the marginalized communities that often live near the incinerators; or shipped to less developed countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, India and Nigeria, where informal e-waste recycling goes on as it does in Agbogbloshie.

Seventy-eight countries currently have policies aimed at limiting or regulating e-waste, but they are obviously not effective enough. In September last year, the Basel Convention’s 1994 Ban Amendment, which prohibits the export of hazardous e-waste from developed countries to less developed ones, finally received enough ratifications to come into force as international law. The countries that have ratified it must now establish domestic legislation or other measures to implement it, which should give teeth to international efforts to manage hazardous e-waste more responsibly. Still, its impact will be limited. The U.S. has not ratified the ban, and as much as 40 percent of the e-waste supposedly recycled in the U.S. in 2018 actually ended up in developing countries, where recycling is usually unlicensed and unregulated. The United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Poland and Spain also reportedly exported e-waste to developing countries⎯shipments that, because the EU incorporated the Ban Amendment into its own laws in 1995, were potentially illegal.

In the meantime, the e-waste problem is growing rapidly. The 2020 edition of the Global E-waste Monitor, a U.N.-supported research project, predicted that by 2030 the amount of e-waste will almost double from 2014 levels, due to the continued growth of a global middle class that can afford more and more electronic gadgets. The range of smart, networked devices available to consumers is also growing. Advanced microprocessors and sensors are routinely incorporated into many products that never had them before, including televisions, clothing and more.* At the same time, device life spans are getting shorter, as companies design their products for obsolescence by updating the design or software and discontinuing support for older models, making it cheaper and simpler to buy a new device than to fix an old one.

As demand for these products grows, so does demand for the raw materials used to make them. Smartphones use about 40 different critical materials, including 16 of the 17 rare earth metals, 85 percent of which are manufactured in China. Rare earths are also essential for popular new products like Apple’s AirPods, and for clean energy technologies, such as wind turbines and Tesla’s electric vehicles. Some of these metals are in short supply, while others, such as cobalt, gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten, are considered conflict minerals because they are extracted in zones where civil wars and human rights abuses are ongoing.

In 2019, the world set a record for e-waste, generating 53.6 million metric tons of it. Only 17.4 percent of discarded electronic devices were recycled.
The mining and processing of rare earths and other metals used in the production of electronics result in ocean acidification, deforestation, eutrophication, biodiversity loss and pollution of agricultural land. People living and working near mines or e-waste dumps face an increased risk of developing illnesses due to contaminated drinking water and food. Hazardous materials, such as mercury and cyanide, which are used in cobalt processing, can pollute ecosystems. Flame-retardants and halogenated organic emissions from the manufacture of aluminum deplete the ozone layer. Particulate matter produced during mining, smelting and transportation reduces air quality. Despite these effects, rare earths are essential for new technologies, so the industry is attempting to diversify and expand, as the U.S, and Europe try to secure new supply chains for rare earths that do not rely on China.

In short, there are consequences for humans and the environment at every stage of the life cycle of a device⎯from the mining of its components, to its manufacture and use, to its disposal. As humanity’s use of, and dependence on, technology expands, the e-waste situation is becoming simply unsustainable.

E-Waste’s Next Generation
The latest generation of wireless mobile technology, known as 5G, promises to be 100 times faster than the current generation, 4G, with 1,000 times more capacity. It will make it possible to have first-rate wireless internet access everywhere, and, its efficiency will allow many more devices to be connected simultaneously, from smartphones and computers to the ever-expanding array of smart products that use the internet to communicate with each other and transmit data—the so-called Internet of Things. This new technology has the potential to benefit the environment in many ways, but it will also increase demand for raw materials and exacerbate the e-waste problem.

5G operates in a new high-band, or millimeter wave, part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Since millimeter waves cannot travel far or easily penetrate solids, companies will need to install a series of small cell towers, each about the size of a suitcase, to house equipment every 820 feet or so—on rooftops, telephone poles, street lights—in order to deliver consistent coverage in cities. The Shift Project, a French think tank advocating a post-carbon economy, estimates that 70.2 million small cell tower bases will be installed by 2025. Each may require 200 to 1,000 watts of power.

The prevalence and speed of 5G will help conserve natural resources by enabling many industries to become more efficient, especially when it is combined with cloud computing, artificial intelligence and other “smart” technologies. The multitude of sensors in connected devices⎯including appliances and gadgets installed in buildings, factories, streetlights and residences⎯will be able to monitor and analyze energy use in real time and optimize it. Smart products used in farming would be better able to monitor crop and soil conditions to make irrigation more precise, thereby conserving water. Sensors could detect air and water pollution, facilitating a government’s ability to regulate emissions, or could identify leaks of water, methane and other gases in pipelines, preventing the waste of resources and averting disasters.

Piles of electronic waste in New Delhi, India.
Piles of electronic waste sit near a drain choked with plastic and garbage, in New Delhi, India, Dec. 8, 2018 (AP photo by Altaf Qadri).
Once integrated into the power grid, 5G could even help speed the transition to renewable energy; for example, if the main grid goes down during inclement weather, a microgrid with a smart system could draw from clean energy sources instead. And for those who drive, 5G-enabled smart devices and smart cars could provide real-time traffic management, minimizing jams and idling, and identifying the most efficient routes, saving time and energy. According to an analysis by IHS Markit, a British information services company, the Internet of Things could include 125 billion connected devices by 2030.

Yet all these gadgets⎯and the data storage centers and small cell towers they rely on⎯will require a huge amount of energy to run, and will therefore produce more greenhouse gas emissions. The production of 5G phones and other products will also increase emissions. By 2025, the number of global mobile phone subscriptions is expected to reach 7.5 billion, up from 5.5 billion in 2019; 5G devices are projected to account for 2.8 billion, or 30 percent, of those subscriptions. A 2016 analysis by Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications company, found that a single smartphone produces the equivalent of 19 kilograms of carbon dioxide annually. When including the emissions from the networks and data centers it relies on, a smartphone is estimated to be responsible for 62 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents annually—comparable to driving 154 miles in an average car.

Currently, the carbon footprint of the information and communications industry amounts to just 2 percent of global emissions. But by 2040, that could increase to 14 percent of worldwide emissions. A decade from now, information technology could consume one-fifth of all global electricity consumption. This is a global problem, but it has local consequences. Ultimately, people in less developed countries will bear the brunt of e-waste’s environmental and social consequences.

The coming tech era will be something of a revolution. As John Shegerian, cofounder of the large e-waste recycling company ERI, said during an interview on the podcast “NothingWasted!,” the shift from 4G to 5G will “cause, eventually, not overnight, but in the years ahead, our biggest turnover of electronics ever, more than [the transition from] black and white to color” TV.

Designing New Solutions
As part of its Sustainable Development Goals, 17 ambitious objectives for everything from alleviating poverty to mitigating climate change, the United Nations is aiming to reach net-zero emissions globally by 2050, which it recognizes will require “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Fifty-five percent of all greenhouse gas emissions today derive from energy use, so decarbonizing the electrical system with renewable energy, storage and carbon capture technologies will be essential, particularly with 5G looming. But the remaining 45 percent of global emissions come from the production of food and various consumer goods. It will be impossible, then, to reach carbon zero if the world does not move away from the current linear economy—extracting raw materials, manufacturing things, using and then disposing of them—to a circular one that reuses, shares, repairs, refurbishes, remanufactures and recycles products.

Some private companies and government measures are already making progress to improve circularity and help reduce waste. To begin with, much of this work takes place during the process of designing a product. According to a University of Oslo study, decisions made during the design stage for a new mobile phone determine 80 percent of its environmental impact. This is when most of the features and costs that affect a phone’s longevity⎯materials, size, weight, repairability and recyclability⎯are determined.

5G technology has the potential to benefit the environment in many ways, but it will also increase demand for raw materials and exacerbate the e-waste problem.

Better designs can decrease e-waste. Green materials such as renewable and biodegradable plastic made from cornstarch or glucose, recycled plastic, or bamboo can replace fossil fuel-based plastic for some parts. Parts of products made using new materials, such as the organic, thin-film resistors being studied at Princeton University, could even be safely metabolized by microorganisms once they are no longer useful, instead of corroding in a trash heap.

Another way to reduce e-waste’s environmental impact is to find alternatives for rare materials. Cobalt, a costly conflict mineral, is notorious for the inhumane and dangerous conditions under which miners of it work. Tesla is redesigning the lithium-ion battery used in its electric vehicles to phase out cobalt and increase the content of nickel, which is ubiquitous and cheaper, and would extend the range of its electric car batteries. Though Tesla is making the change primarily for cost reasons, and nickel mining traditionally has negative environmental impacts as well, the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, has promised to grant contracts to companies that use environmentally friendly and humane nickel mining practices.

In addition, if devices were designed to be repairable, there would be less product turnover. Many electronic devices are glued shut or use proprietary parts. Companies often deny access to repair tools and manuals, and some even threaten copyright infringement when third parties offer repair services or provide information on do-it-yourself fixes. Increasingly, advocates and policymakers are framing these practices as a violation of the “right to repair”⎯consumers’ prerogative to mend their own property. One company, iFixit, which advocates for this right, has pledged to provide free online repair information and educational tools. iFixit disassembles devices and scores them on how repairable they are, in addition to providing free repair guides and selling the parts and tools necessary to fix electronics at home. Because of this, iFixit has been threatened with copyright infringement, too.

Bags of electronic parts and components to be recycled.
Bags of electronic parts await recycling at a warehouse in Beringen, Belgium, July 13, 2018 (AP photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert).
Some companies are taking further steps. Apple, for example, has a trade-in program for iPhones and eventually wants all its products to be made entirely with recycled materials. Toward this end, it created a Material Recovery Lab that uses robotics and machine learning to improve on traditional recycling methods. In 2018, Apple unveiled a special robot, called Daisy, that is capable of disassembling 200 iPhones an hour and can better recover the valuable materials in them, such as gold, silver, palladium and platinum. Apple hopes to license this technology to other e-waste recyclers.

In addition to conserving natural resources and avoiding the harmful impacts of mining, the salvaging and reusing of valuable materials from e-waste—also known as urban mining—makes economic sense. In 2016, e-waste contained 55 billion euros worth of precious metals and other valuable materials. A report by the ProSUM project, which collects data on e-waste and raw materials, found that smartphones contain gold at concentrations 25 to 30 times higher than that of the richest gold deposits. And mining from ore is 13 times more expensive than salvaging e-waste through urban mining, according to a 2018 academic study. Moreover, the ProSUM report found that extracting gold through the urban mining of high-tech products results in 80 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than traditional mining operations per unit of gold.

Veena Sahajwalla, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has developed urban-mining “microfactories” that can separate out useful components of e-waste. As electronic devices pass through the modules that she built to extract metals, they are broken apart and robots remove useful parts, which are then heated in a small furnace that breaks and reforms the bonds between different elements and separates out valuable metal alloys. Another module then reforms the plastic into filament for 3D printing.

An alternative method of urban mining, and one that consumes less energy, is bioleaching, which involves dissolving the metal from e-waste in a microbial soup, after which it can be separated out and purified. Researchers in the U.K. have successfully used bioleaching to remove copper from circuit boards and transform it into high-quality copper foil.

It will be impossible to reach carbon zero if the world does not move away from the current linear economy to a circular one that reuses, remanufactures and recycles products.
While urban mining can salvage useful materials from e-waste and reduce the harms of formal mining, other initiatives seek to give products a longer life before they are discarded. For example, the startup Rheaply, based in Chicago, provides resource management technology to connect businesses, universities and organizations with unneeded parts, materials and resources to others who need them. “What we do is we sit at the middle, and we connect you with all the players locally that might be able to help you circulate assets,” Thomas Fecarotta, its vice president of external affairs, said in an interview with WPR. He explained that Rheaply tries to find the best path for reuse, whether that means incentivizing reuse within a company or among local entities, or working with partners that remanufacture products using used, repaired and new parts.

Again, some governments are reinforcing these activist- or business-driven initiatives. After first adopting a circular economy plan in 2015, the EU recently approved a new and more comprehensive “action plan” as part of its European Green Deal. The plan requires electronic products to be designed to last longer; to be easier to repair, upgrade, recycle and reuse; and to incorporate as much recycled material as possible. It also includes incentives for companies to maintain ownership and responsibility for their products by offering consumers subscription services to use them. Single-use products and planned obsolescence will be regulated, with the goal of eliminating waste altogether.

These kinds of circular economy projects and policies could expand economic opportunities and, with them, environmental justice. As Rheaply’s founder, Garry Cooper wrote recently for The Sustainable Business newsletter, resource sharing “will make it easier (and cheaper) for people of all socioeconomic groups to obtain necessary items.” When a business is not using its electronics, “the circular economy would more easily allow for computers to get to communities who do not have access to important technology, rather than gathering dust and slowly losing value in an office.” Access to technology can itself open more doors for those who receive the devices.

On the other hand, despite its long-term benefits, a shift toward a more sustainable and circular economy could, in the short term, negatively affect people in less developed countries that depend on mining rare earth minerals and recycling or managing e-waste. Policies promoting a circular economy must be combined with socially protective strategies that offer new opportunities, much like the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform, to ensure that the transition occurs in a way that protects both the environment and people’s livelihoods.