2 types of advanced-technology refuse are especially noxious to the environment: plastic and electronic waste. Both are unsustainably burgeoning.
E-waste are discarded products powered by electricity, whether by battery or plugged into a socket. 53.6 metric tons of e-waste was created in 2019 (7.3 kg per capita), up by 21% in the past 5 years. The volume of e-waste is expected to reach 74.7 million tonnes by 2030.
The raw materials in e-waste were worth ~$57 billion, but only ~17.4% of that was recovered through recycling. Europe is the only continent that significantly recycles, at a rate of 42.5%. Asia, lags behind Europe, recycles only ~11.7% of its e-waste, and the Americas just 9.4%.
Asia generates the most e-waste: 24.9 million tonnes in 2019, followed by the Americas (13.1 Mt) and Europe (12 Mt), while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 Mt and 0.7 Mt respectively. The United States is the world leader in producing electronic waste: tossing away over 3 million tonnes each year.
The main recyclable resources are copper, iron and gold – but many rare metals are found in e-waste. Most electronic products have toxic additives or hazardous substances which pollute the soil, waterways, and air. Several chemical compounds in electronic devices are destructive to the ozone layer.
Electronic waste is often shipped to African and Asian countries with lax environmental controls at best. In many of these countries, electronic refuse is disassembled or burnt with no safety or environmental considerations.
The generation of much e-waste comes from products designed with short lifespans, such a mobile phones and computers. Companies who manufacture these products, such as Apple, rely upon repeat sales – at exorbitant expense to Nature and human health. “Our products today don’t last as long as they used to, and it’s a strategy by manufacturers to force us into shorter and shorter upgrade cycles,” observed repair tool maker Kyle Wiens.
19th-century industrialization – the onset of the machine age – kicked self-extinction into high gear. Technologies developed in the past half-century have shifted that into overdrive.
Technology cannot fix the environmental problems created by it. Without a systemic intervention, humanity has only a half century before its imminent demise is certain. We’re killing ourselves off via technological conveniences.
Vanessa Forti et al, “The global e-waste monitor 2020,” United Nations (July 2020).
Carolyn Gramling, “Earth’s annual e-waste could grow to 75 million metric tons by 2030,” Science News (2 July 2020).
Zafrir Rinat, “Amount of global e-waste has grown 20 percent in five years, UN report finds,” Haaretz (3 July 2020).