Much like our lip service to animal welfare, we humans are very good at talking the talk on the need to protect natural resources, but barely crawling when asked to walk the walk. Case in point: a new United Nations University report has today revealed that in 2016, our e-waste mountain grew 8% on 2014.
That’s a big increase, and it gets worse when you realise the sheer scale of the numbers involved: 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt). That still feels a little abstract, so let’s put it in more real-world terms: you’re looking at the weight of 4,500 Eiffel Towers, or 1.23 million fully-loaded 18-wheel 40-ton trucks forming a line all the way from New York to Bangkok and back around again. Buried in this waste: $US55 billion worth of precious metals which aren’t being recycled, despite high street offers of phone recycling with each two-year upgrade.
The worst part (yes, we haven’t reached the worst part yet) is that this problem is going to get worse before – and if – it gets betters. Experts from United Nations University are forecasting a further 17% increase (55.2Mt) by 2021. “We had hoped that the increase would be less, but in fairness and being realistic we will be confronted with further increases over the next couple of years,” Ruediger Kuehr, head of the United Nations University’s sustainable cycles programme tells me over the phone from his office in Germany. “Just now around Christmas time we see more and more gadgets coming with built-in batteries and they are filling the e-waste mountain.”
Of course, just because the goods were disposed of in 2016, doesn’t mean they are 2016’s products – so our rampant consumerism is almost certainly yet to catch up with us. “This is historical waste also,” Kuehr explains. Even if you go to the recycling centres in the UK and Germany or elsewhere. It’s usually a mixture – you have a certain separation, but it’s very rough. Microwaves are coming together with vacuum cleaners and irons and electric toothbrushes – and too much is ending up in the normal household bin.”
As with the bad habits fueling climate change, this is largely an issue brought about by the western world, but as developing countries get richer, the pattern will almost certainly spread. At 17.3 kilograms per inhabitant, Oceania was the worst generator of e-waste, followed closely by Europe at 16.6kg per citizen. The Americas average 11.6kg per inhabitant, Asia 4.2kg and Africa just 1.9kg.
Tackling the e-waste mountain
If you were to dig deep in the report for good news, it would be this: at the time of writing, 67 of the 192 UN member states are covered by e-waste management laws, and that covers 66% of the world’s population. In 2014, just 44% was covered – but there is still no room for complacency. “Even an increase in worldwide population covered by e-waste legislation doesn’t necessarily mean the e-waste mountain is shrinking,” Kuehr explains.
To seriously tackle the issue, it increasingly looks like we need a radical rethink of the way we purchase and use goods – because as Kuehr tells me: “the production of these products has the biggest environmental load,” rather than the consumption or disposal.
So if Kuehr were King of the world for a day, what would he do to try and tackle the problem? “I would push in the direction to improve repairability, but also make the manufacturers the owners of the machines,” he replies. “A move towards a service society where we as consumers are no longer purchasing the iPhone or the Samsung, but we are purchasing a service.”
If we somehow provoke this sea change of attitude, then “they would design equipment differently in order to allow maximum access to components for repair and reuse.” Of course, for companies to change their business model, they need consumer buy-in, and our love of possessions is a serious hurdle to overcome. “The biggest challenge is our mentality as consumers because we still prefer to own a product rather than to lease it,” Kuehr concedes.
Despite being part of some fairly dispiriting research, Kuehr is surprisingly upbeat. When I ask him if there are any positives to take, he responds with a resounding “definitely.” We may have been slow to wake up to our consumerist damage, but we seem to be blearily acknowledging it, which is a small but important first step. “There is still a lot to be done, but it is moving more onto the agenda, but also onto the consumer’s mind – and that is a good movement,” he says.
“Because only knowledge and awareness will guide us and change us.” Let’s hope so, for the planet’s sake.