Shocking facts about tech's impact on the environment

Immersed as we are in a digital age, the tech that so much of our lives depend on is rarely viewed as anything but a marvel. Such innovations as our wireless headphones, folding smart devices, and VR headsets provide us with access to levels of productivity, communication, and entertainment that most of us would be lost without.  

However, there is a darker side to the tech we use that transcends its tendency to make us anti-social and vulnerable to the likes of cyber-bullying and misinformation – it is inflicting grave damage to the planet. Electronic waste, or e-waste, is less a problem for the global community more it is a crisis.

In this piece, which references a recent study by Blancoo - an international data security company specialising in data erasure and computer reuse - we expose shocking facts about tech's impact on the environment, and what we can do reverse this frightening trend.

53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2019 and the figure is growing

According to Global E-waste Monitor 2020, more than 53 million metric tons of e-waste was produced in 2019 alone – a weight that exceeds the total number of commercial aircraft ever built.

More worryingly, this figure represents almost a 2 million metric ton increase on the previous year, roughly the same as 3,000 Boeing 747s. Without urgent action, by 2030, the overall figure is expected to reach almost 75 million metric tons.

Less than a fifth of the e-waste produced in 2019 was recycled sustainably

Despite the many corporate assurances of green practice and investments into ESG initiatives, of the 53.6 million tonnes produced of e-waste produced in 2019, only 17% was recycled.

In other words, 83% of the e-waste generated was disposed of through environmentally harmful means and much of it will have been buried in landfills where it can leak harmful toxins into the earth. 

Adults and especially children can be harmed by e-waste

Multiple organisations have emphasised the issue of toxic chemicals from e-waste escaping into the air, soil, and water supplies.

Recently, the World Health Organisation  went further and highlighted the particular risk to children. As they are physically smaller and their organs aren’t fully developed, children are more susceptible to the toxic chemicals contained within e-waste.

Their bodies absorb more contaminants relative to their size and they are less able to metabolise or eradicate toxins. Evidence also suggests that where pregnant women are exposed to toxic e-waste, the development of the unborn child can be affected in ways that lead to life-long ill-health.

Much e-waste comes from every day, household items

Though commercial e-waste is a massive part of the problem, small, regularly used domestic items contribute to a significant degree.

Vacuum cleaners and cameras were some of the worst offenders in 2019, with 17.4 million tonnes becoming waste. This represents 10 million tonnes more than monitors and screens, which are often assume\d to be the prevalent hardware swelling e-waste dumps across the planet.

Tackling the e-waste crisis

As with all forms of ecological damage, we can turn the tide on the e-waste crisis, but it requires us to act now.

A simple solution that can have a big impact is the refurbishment of electronic goods to extend their lifespan. Where products like data storage devices are disposed of needlessly, millions of still usable devices with harvestable components end up in landfills.

Blancoo’s research looked at whether businesses were seeking to address this by complying with their own sustainability policies. It found that only 24% of end-of-life equipment was reused, despite 83% of respondents claiming to have a CSR policy in place.

Making the distinction between end-of-life and end-of-first-life

More businesses need to normalise the reusing of electronic equipment and the harvesting of resources that require complex mining or are becoming less abundant.

However, this still leaves non-functional, end-of-life hardware that needs to be sustainably disposed. It is vital that organisations understand the difference between this end-of-life hardware and end-of-first-life hardware.

Where technological hardware is beyond practical use, businesses should commit to a zero landfill policy and ensure it is disposed of sustainably. In the UK, the Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations state that the EEE producer is responsible for financing the treatment, reprocessing, and disposal of unwanted equipment unless both parties agree to an alternative arrangement.

Businesses need to be aware of this before taking matters into their own hands and that the regulations apply to all producers regardless of their size.

Should a business agree with a producer to make their own arrangements to dispose of WEEE, they must make sure it is treated, recycled, recovered, and disposed of correctly.

Regulations are helping but we still have a long way to go

71% of the world’s population was covered by a national e-waste legislation, regulation, or policy by the end of 2019, compared with only 44% in 2014.

The uptick in coverage was aided by high population countries like India and China introducing their own national regulations. However, this coverage equates to only 78 of the planet’s 193 countries, meaning less than half of all countries are currently covered by legal instruments governing e-waste.

Through the normalisation of tech recycling, sustainable disposal, and effective worldwide legislation, the e-waste crisis can be addressed, but time is running out.

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