Author Topic: Our Phones Are Complicit in the E-Waste Surge: That Needs to Change, And Fast  (Read 408 times)

Asif Iqbal

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Humanity produces trash. Lots of it. Yet over the last 20-30 years, we've ramped up our efforts around the world to go greener by introducing new recycling programs and methods. Products we recycle range from plastics we eat and drink with, to scrap metals extracted from outdated cars for repurposing.

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Mobile devices, in use by the majority of our planet's population in one capacity or another, are one area that could use a revamping in repurposing. A number of companies have begun developing eco-friendly solutions, from longer battery life to recycled materials, while green movements and government policies around the world are showing signs of change. We're still, however, short of the mark, and we might just be getting farther away from it. But there are ways to improve the existing infrastructure and protocols.

The numbers paint an ugly picture

In July, a Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) report claimed global e-waste surged 21 percent in the last five years. Last year, the world produced 53.6 million tons of e-waste, and that number is set to balloon to 74 million metric tons by 2030. Yet only an estimated 20 percent of our e-waste is recycled, according to a 2019 UN report, and according to the EPA, less than 20 percent of our mobile devices are recycled.

What isn't recycled formally, which totals 80 percent of waste, according to the same UN report, is dumped in a landfill or is informally recycled by locals. But in developing nations, where these products are informally recycled, the proper facilities and tools to safely recycle are scarce and usually unavailable. As a result, the local environment and populations where the e-waste is dumped suffer unquantifiable and sometimes irreparable damage. Many of the essential materials used in mobile devices have carcinogenic properties when mishandled, and in some instances complications like mercury poisoning can arise.

In 2017, Vox's Peter Holgate reported on the bleak state of the phone recycling myth, and these detrimental consequences. Holgate wrote:

"The environmental cost of such a transaction is high — but the human cost is higher. Walk the streets of e-graveyards like Agbobloshie in West Africa or similar sites in Asia or another part of the developing world, and you’ll see hundreds, if not thousands, of microentrepreneurs, essentially cooking printed circuit boards to extract the metals within. From experience, I can say that the smell in the air is dizzying, and sticks in your nostrils and throat for days."

Holgate's vivid imagery offers a bleak look into what we can't see after we've disposed of our cherished phones, but where do these problems start?

Digging down to the problem

"Only when it’s cheaper for companies to reuse component parts — rather than manufacturing from scratch — will our old phones truly meet a better fate," Holgate wrote. He was right in 2017, and the sentiment still holds true today.

The first clear problem starts at conception of the device when it's manufactured and acquiring the resources required to operate the phone, such as mining for precious metals. The largest greenhouse gas emissions associated with a mobile device's existence stem from production, covering about 80 percent of the total emissions over a phone's lifecycle, according to a Greenpeace report on the iPhone 8. Some of the environmental harm during production could be reduced significantly. Rather than mining companies scouring the earth for new materials, we should reorganize our efforts into recycled old ones-a two-pronged problem.

Not only do companies lack the incentive to reuse old parts, but so do consumers to bring their old phones back for a trade-in. Many consumers tend to shove their old phones into a drawer in case of an emergency with the new device. Seldom do they actually need it as a backup, and they are not offered much in the way of incentives to bring their phones in to be repurposed. Such an undertaking also requires a system that could keep track of a mobile-device lifecycle.

Moreover, telecommunications companies and their fellow industry companions don't possess the means to track a consumer's mobile device from its manufacture to its device. Managing the mobile device cycle, however, requires a proper centralized platform to handle the repurposing and redistribution process of the device. An improved life cycle management system could handle supply chain, customer phone care, trade-ins, resale, and ultimately recycling, but very few are in use around the world.

There is, however, hope for real change.

Making the grass greener on the same side

The United Nations has begun taking the lead on initiatives to curb the problem of e-waste and device recycling. Most recently, the U.N. and Nigeria reached a landmark agreement in the repurposing space, partnering to invest a total of $15 million from public and private sectors into formalizing the informal recycling method, which includes employing 100,000 laborers.

Nigeria's pact with the U.N. is a shining example of how to be the beacon for change, but the world needs a larger collective effort in several areas to be able to handle a growing e-waste problem. Building more recycling infrastructure for both disassembly and collection of phone materials would provide a sorely needed boost to the repurposing ecosystem, but that's just the obvious, surface-level changes required. The solution runs much deeper.

As more and more phones pile up in closets and drawers, so do the missed opportunities. Rather than mine for new precious resources to manufacture mobile devices, why not repurpose the old ones lying around?

Telecommunications companies must work with governments or private enterprises to develop incentivized programs that will encourage consumers to bring in their old mobile devices for recycling rather than keep them.

To tie everything together, telecommunications companies and repurposing plants need to be in synchronization, utilizing software and full suite platforms to tie everything together. Right now, there remains a huge gap between telecommunications companies, inventory, and repurposing plants that prevents the repurposing ecosystem from reaching its fullest potential. Platforms that synchronize the entire lifecycle of the mobile device could streamline this process and optimize the supply chain and broader ecosystem.

As our mobile devices play increasing roles in our lives, we have to ensure that the byproducts of their existence don't ultimately lead to us depleting the environment we cherish so much just beyond our screens. The repurposing process might not be where it should be, but there is plenty of potentials and the opportunities are there for the taking.



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