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E-waste: is our convenience today next-generation problem tomorrow?!

In the modern world our life is unimaginable without gadgets and gizmos. Every morning we wake up to the smell of freshly brewed espresso, eat a piece of toast for breakfast or drink a  smoothie on the go, check our emails on the phone on the way to work or listen to our favourite tune in the car. Electronic devices truly revolutionized our lives, making them more convenient and efficient. In a world where everyone is always in a rush to get somewhere, to do more, to achieve more, every minute counts. But in a quest for efficiency, we created another problem along the way. Electronic waste. When devices or kitchen appliances become obsolete, we throw them away and buy new ones.  


Electronic waste is among the fastest-growing solid waste on the Planet. In the year 2022 alone more than 62 million tonnes of e-waste was produced globally, and less than a quarter of it was recycled (ITU, 2024). Statistical data suggest that in America one person on average has access to about 10 to 11 connected electrical devices (Statista, 2024), together with household items this number can reach up to 24 per household (U.S.PIRG, 2021). On average Americans purchase about 1500 $ worth of electrical products yearly, where the average life span of the device can range from 4 years (for cell phones or laptops) to 10 years for large kitchen appliances like refrigerators or television screens (Bhubaneswari Bisoyi & Biswajit Das, 2017).


Fig. 1 Statistical data on e-waste for the year 2022. Data from International Τelecommunication Union (ITU) (2024). 


The current marketing strategies fuel this consumer behaviour. Big companies like Apple produce a new model of their iconic cell phone nearly every year, soliciting customers to constantly upgrade their phones for a newer model. But at what cost? And what happens to the outdated models? Many companies are following similar strategies to stay competitive in the market. Every year more than 1.17 billion smartphone units are shipped globally (Statista, 2024), and the production rate is not slowing down. At this pace, the supply of resources necessary to produce so many devices comes into question.


A problem that became especially sharp in 2010, when China restricted the export of REE to Japan for two months, disrupting their automotive production lines, and resulting in the spike of the global REE prices (Ferreira G. and Critelli J. 2021). Rare Earth elements are important components of many technologies from small household appliances to military-grade equipment.  They are used in minute amounts for their unique qualities like magnetism, luminescence, and strength, highly desired by the industry. They are important elements in the production of your flat-screen TV. Indium (In) is a key component of your cell phone’s touch screen. Neodymium (Nd), cerium (Ce), and dysprosium (Dy) are the key elements for wind turbine magnets. REEs are fundamental in the production of future technologies, like electro vehicles, batteries, and semiconductors. Despite their name, they are not rare, but scattered, often mixed with other minerals resulting in the arduous and often not economically profitable extraction process. China is the leading producer of the REE, holding 37% of REE reserves (US Geological Survey, mineral commodity summaries, 2020). With the world striving towards decarbonisation and major economies trying to transition towards more sustainable energy sources, the demand for REE will only increase.


This incident prompted the world countries to search for new REE reserves, improve the efficiency of the REE extraction methods and the world finally started to have a harder look at the circular economy.  


However, e-waste is still a huge problem. Landfills are filled with electronic devices that are not being recycled. More and more outdated electrical equipment finds its way from Europe and North America into Africa, sometimes to other countries like Vietnam, India, China, and the Philippines  (Höges, 2009).  In the Nigerian port of Lagos alone more than 100,000 computers arrive every year (UNEP, 2018). In Ghana, 215, 000 tons of e-waste arrive every year (Wired, 2020). E-waste contains valuable metals and in many developing countries it has become a source of income. In some African countries, like Ghana where huge amounts of North American and European e-waste found refuge, people, often young children collect scrap for a living (Minter A., 2016). Most of the time they do it by applying very dangerous practices. To collect valuable metals they dismantle old devices or simply burn them to get rid of the plastic exterior. Without access to any kind of protective gear, they are constantly exposed to hazardous, toxic materials (like lead, dioxins, and mercury). If injured, they are not able to see a doctor, as they can’t afford to miss a day of work. Burning the electronics results in the release of toxic substances into the environment: soil, air, dust, or water. 


Statistical data show that up until 2011 only about 1% of REE that ended up on the landfill were being recycled (Jowitt et al., 2018). At the same time, the processing of 1 metric ton of REE can produce up to 2000 metric tons of toxic solid waste (McNulty, 2021), making an undeniable environmental footprint. To make things worse, the transparency within the existing supply chains is low, complicating the attempts to shift towards higher environmental and social standards. 


However, more and more companies are putting an effort to recycle. In the IT industry, companies like Dell have started an initiative to increase the recycling of Dell’s hard drives, mining end-of-life hard drives and IT equipment for rare earth oxides. Up to 1.4 million hard drives are scrapped yearly. In 2019, together with Teleplan and Seagate, they announced the first closed-loop process for recovering rare earth magnets from 25000 hard drives.


Major smartphone and small accessories companies are urged to invent new innovative products to battle the competitive market, trying to come up with yet another smartphone model that you just NEED to have, setting the pace for other smaller competitors to join the race for market shares. Their marketing strategy is based on the very old principle of Planned Obsolescence which ensures that the current version of a given product will become out of date or useless within a known period (Kramer, 2012). But at what environmental cost? 


In the year 2022 alone, the statistical data show that Apple sold 232 million iPhones (46 – 124 kg CO2 footprint per unit), 61 million iPads (72 – 284 kg CO2 per unit), 26 million Macs (up to 6994 kg CO2 per unit) and MacBook units (147 – 356 kg CO2 per unit), 82 million AirPods and 53 million Apple Watches (28- 56 kg CO2 per unit; Curry D., 2024; Apple Environmental Progress report, 2023). You can do the math. Until major companies change their market strategies and implement more durable products instead of following yearly trends, and convincing people to update their old models for new ones, we will face the same problem. 


Fortunately, some companies are trying to do better. New smartphone providers like Dutch Fairphone, American Teracube, or Framework, an American computer manufacturer are building their market models on transparency and principles of the circular economy. They focus on durability, reparability, and the availability of spare parts that can be easily replaced to extend the smartphone's usable life. The Fairphone company in addition strives to improve the supply chain and assure fair working conditions for the miners and manufacturers.


The sustainable energy sector recognizes the economic attractiveness of recycling the permanent magnets to recover necessary REE like Nd or Pr, and new more environmentally friendly methods of REE extraction are under development (Deng et al., 2022).


But we are still miles away from being sustainable or fully circular. So next time you are about to make your life more convenient and buy yourself another device, think if you truly need it. There is beauty in the simplicity of things, and there is magic in minimalism.



References


Apple Environmental Progress report, (2023). www.apple.com


Bhubaneswari Bisoyi & Biswajit Das, (2017). An Approach to En Route Environmentally Sustainable Future Through Green Computing, Book Chapter ( Smart Innovation, Systems and Technologies), pp 621–629.


Curry David (2024).  Apple Statistics (2024). https://www.businessofapps.com/data/apple-statistics/


Deng Bing et al. (2022). Rare earth elements from waste. Science Advance, 8, eabm3132, DOI:10.1126/sciadv.abm3132


Ferreira G. and Critelli J., (2022). China’s Global Monopoly on Rare-Earth Elements. Parameters 52, no. 1: 57-72, doi:10.55540/0031-1723.3129. 


Forti V. et al. (2020). “The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020.” E-waste Monitor. Accessed May 19, 2021, http://ewastemonitor.info/


Höges C. (2009). How Europe's Discarded Computers Are Poisoning Africa's Kids. Spiegel International, www.spiegel.de/international


International Telecommunication Union, ITU (2024). Electronic waste rising five times faster than documented e-waste recycling: UN. https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Pages/PR-2024-03-20-e-waste-recycling.aspx


Jowitt M., Werner T.T., Weng Z. , Mudd G.M.  (2018) Recycling of the rare earth elements. Current Opinion in Green and Sustainable Chemistry, 13, 1–7, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogsc.2018.02.008


Kramer K.-L. (2012). User Experience in the Age of Sustainability. A Practitioner’s Blueprint. eBook ISBN: 9780123877963


McNulty Simon, T., Hazen, N., and Park, S. (2022). ‘Processing the ores of rare-earth elements’, MRS Bulletin, 47, 258–66.


Minter A. (2016) Ending the toxic smoke rising from an iconic dump in Ghana will take more than curbing Western waste. Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/burning-truth-behind-e-waste-dump-africa-180957597/


Statista (2024). Smartphones - statistics & facts. www.statista.com


Statista (2024) Average number of connected devices residents have access to in U.S. households in 2020, by device. www.statista.com


UN Environment Programme (2018). Turning e-waste into gold: the untapped potential of African landfills. www.unep.org



Wired (2020). Your old electronics are poisoning people at this toxic dump in Ghana. www.wired.com


World Health Organization (2023).  Electronic waste (e-waste). www.who.int





Dr. Alexandra Filippova


Dr. Filippova is a marine geochemist with an extensive and diverse scientific background in geoscience, natural management, polar marine research and climate science. Over a decade she studied processes that affect ocean circulation in the past and how they could compare to the modern day situation. One of the key questions of her studies included the role of climate induced melt water inputs in ocean circulation and climate changes on short and long term scale. Beyond academia, she truly enjoys volunteering with Non-Profit Organizations, where she advocates for diversity and inclusion of caregivers in all STEMM fields (Mothers in Science) and works on development of sustainable projects that aim at preserving nature and biodiversity (Viable Community). 



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