The ever-growing demand for electronic devices is creating a tsunami of e-waste
That is the stark warning from the United Nations whose Global E-waste Monitor 2020 reports e-waste is the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream. It said a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019 – an increase of 21% in just five years. By 2030 this figure is expected to almost double to 74 million Mt a year.
E-waste, which often includes precious materials, basic heavy elements and hazardous chemicals, is the cause of great harm to the environment. This increase is being fuelled in part by the insatiable demand for IoT devices. In 2021 there are more than 10 billion active IoT devices, which according to statistics published by DataProt, is estimated to increase to more than 25.4 billion in 2030.
The future certainly looks bleak if the tide of e-waste is not stemmed. Governments around the world are starting to raise awareness of e-waste, including the UK Government, but ultimately the responsibility largely rests with electronic manufacturers, since they are the source of the devices and with consumers who use and discard them.
The global economy has been built on a take-make-waste model where valuable natural resources are extracted, used and then disposed of. Clearly this is not sustainable and is fuelling our climate crisis, so it is vital that both manufacturers and consumers play their part and make a greater joint effort and commitment to reduce this waste and pollution.
What role can manufacturers play?
Manufacturers could do more to promote and adopt circular-economy practices, to reduce the need to constantly use new raw materials.
They can look to introduce smarter design processes to ensure longer product lifespans and improved reparability as well as ensuring components are recyclable.
One area for manufacturers to consider is liquid-proofing at the design stage, which can allow devices to be easily repaired without going to waste.
Liquid protection technologies, such as nano coatings, allow Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and Contract Manufacturers (CMs) to re-solder components and rework boards rather than having to throw them away. This reduces the need for landfill and enables manufacturers to meet their Environmental Social Governance (ESG) goals and regulations around waste.
Technology that prevents water ingress has recently become more important as consumers clean their mobile devices more often as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, putting them at risk of damage. A ZDNet poll revealed in 2020 that the pandemic appears to have changed personal hygiene habits with regards to cleaning mobile devices.
Making products last longer will be the fastest route towards satisfying ESG demands for electronics manufacturers. This has been shown through findings from the World Alliance for the Statistical Control of Electronic Waste, which states that 75% of emissions linked to a smartphone can be attributed to the manufacturing stage. However, extending the life of these devices by 4.5 years can cut emissions in half.
Manufacturers that are slow to adapt could fall behind in competitiveness as more consumers place ESG credentials at the heart of their buying decisions, preferring brands that have been proactive in this area.
What can consumers do?
Consumers don’t need to upgrade electronic devices as often as they might think and can stop purchasing new electronics and focus on repairing and repurposing their equipment. The Royal Society of Chemistry found that 96% of consumers have kept hold of one or more small old gadgets like mobile phones, laptops and MP3 players, with two-thirds planning to hoard them indefinitely.
An important step that consumers can make is to take all their old and broken electronic devices to a designated recycling point.
As well as adopting better attitudes towards recycling and re-using devices, consumers can also buy better, which can mean choosing versions of products that have been produced in a more sustainable way.
In fact, sustainability awareness among consumers is increasing, with 81% saying “I must be able to trust the brand to do what is right,” according to a 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust?
Even though e-waste was excluded from COP26, it is something that manufacturers and consumers should be keenly aware of.
Consumer pressure has an important role in encouraging businesses to change their manufacturing practices. As they improve their processes, more consumers will inevitably demand evidence of sustainable practices and focus their approach to reusability themselves. If manufacturers and consumers can drive each other in a joint effort, then the years ahead will be less bleak for future generations.
About the Author
Dr, Stephen Coulson is Chief Science Officer and Founder at P2i. P2i is the global leader in liquid repellent nano coating technology. We are a technology solutions provider focused on increasing the reliability of electronic devices by protecting them from liquid damage. Our revolutionary plasma process dramatically reduces the surface energy of a material, so when liquids come into contact with it, they form beads and simply roll off. This enables our customers to dramatically improve the performance of their products by protecting them from the effects of water and all other liquids, without affecting the look or feel of the device.
Featured image: ©Blue-Planet