E-waste surges in 2021 as world sends goldmine to landfill

2021-10-14

The amount of electronic waste created globally has again increased this year, with the majority of it unlikely to be recycled.

Key points:

• E-waste is expected to hit over 70 million tonnes per year by 2030

• Only 17.4 per cent of e-waste is effectively recycled

• Australia has to move to a circular economy to reach net-zero emissions, experts say

Perhaps in part because of COVID-19 and increased reliance on technology for home offices and entertainment, the amount of dumped e-waste is expected to total 57.4 million tonnes in 2021, according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum.

That’s an additional 2 million tonnes on last year and roughly equal to the weight of the Great Wall of China, the group said (though estimates of the weight of the Great Wall of China vary).

Despite the e-waste containing anything from gold and silver to valuable glass and rare earth elements, only about 17.4 per cent will be effectively recycled, based on 2019 figures.

That’s in contrast to the public perception that 40-50 per cent of waste is recycled, according to the WEEE Forum.

Today is International E-Waste Day: an annual event created by the WEEE Forum to draw attention to the growing problem of electronic waste.

The group are using this year’s event to push for the recycling of household e-waste, much of which is sitting unused in drawers and cupboards.

“We hope to raise awareness among citizens of the importance of returning electricals that are no longer functioning or are unused,” WEEE Forum director-general Pascal Leroy said.

“In Europe, one out of seven electricals in the household is sitting in drawers because they are not used or not functioning.

“In France, 5 kilograms of [electrical] products per person are non-functional [while] 17kg are rarely used.”

Making recycling options easy for people to access is one key to increasing the proportion of recycled e-waste, Mr Leroy said.

“Convenience is important, i.e. making it easy for citizens to return their electricals to shops or civic amenity sites.”

But while the WEEE Forum’s focus this year is on recycling, and recycling is an important part of diverting waste from landfill, experts say individual consumers shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility for what is largely a systemic failing with systemic solutions.

Why do we have so much waste?

Currently we have a linear approach to manufacturing, ownership and disposal.

In other words, a company makes a product, and once we buy it, sole responsibility for that product (besides manufacturing faults), is handed to us. At its end of life, its disposal is the individual consumers’ responsibility.

In the best case, the product is recycled, but more often than not it’s sent to landfill.

But this model, which puts indefinite pressure on Earth’s finite resources, is fundamentally unsustainable, according to Lisa McLean, chief executive officer of non-profit research and advocacy group NSW Circular.

Instead, we have to transition to a circular economy, she says. Under the circular model, manufacturers still have responsibility for the end-of-life handling of the products they profit from.

When a product — whether that be a kettle, a washing machine or even the clothes we wear — stops working or is worn out, it’s returned to the manufacturer.

The manufacturer, with the right incentives, is then tasked with either repairing the item, repurposing its working parts, or as a last resort, recycling the components for reuse.

Considering a tonne of mobile phones contains more gold than an average tonne of gold ore, this last option isn’t necessarily bad.

As for materials that aren’t recyclable, we have to transition to products that don’t use those materials, Ms McLean said.

“We need to say goodbye to products that can’t be recycled. Certain plastics and other products that can’t be recycled, they have to be designed out,” she said.

Although there are already systemic changes taking place in parts of Europe toward a circular economy, industrial design expert Miles Park from UNSW says our e-waste problem is about to get much bigger if we don’t move faster.

“A whole lot of new products are hitting waste streams in huge numbers — right now batteries and then in about 10 years [early] generation solar panels will be coming to their end of life,” Dr Park said.

“[And] now we’ve got microchips and antennae in everything from our toothbrushes to our cars.”

At the present rate of increase, the UN predicts global e-waste will hit 74 million tonnes per year by 2030.

Climate change the catalyst for a circular revolution

Short of conquering and mining other planets, Earth will run out of useful resources if we continue using them faster than they can be replenished.

So although it sounds like a radical shift in the way we do things, moving to a circular economy is a matter of when, not if.

There needs to be a “carrot and stick” approach by legislators and policymakers to help manufacturers drive the transition, according to Dr Park.

Right now, technology manufacturers are locked in a race to create new and innovative products, which quickly make superseded models obsolete.

Instead, there needs to be the right market incentives to develop products that last, or that are easily updated.

One piece of the puzzle is for manufacturers to bear the responsibility for a product’s end of life.

“From a product design point of view, there are well-understood approaches, but they’re not widely applied,” Dr Park said.

“First and foremost, if it lasts longer, you’re going to displace increased demand for stuff.

“Throw into that you’ve got upgrade-ability, and instead of ownership, you’ve got shared schemes – car-share schemes for instance.

“You’ve got to create a landscape where businesses can flourish and take back [their products] in this whole ecosystem of a circular economy.”

Climate change and Australia’s need to move to net-zero emissions means the time to shift to a circular economy is now, according to Ms McLean.

While transitioning to renewable energies and transport are needed to cut down Australia’s emissions, that still leaves a lot of emissions in manufacturing, mining and waste disposal, she said.

“It still leaves around 45 per cent of emissions that are embedded in products and are embedded in waste,” Ms McLean said.

abc.net.au, 14 October 2021
; https://www.abc.net.au