By Jim Haigh, Keep Me Posted North America
The Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) has just released the third edition of The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, and the findings detail an ecological and precious resource-squandering crisis growing out of control. The scope is global and the damage arrives local in many ways that are troubling for the environment and consumers.
The surge in global electronic waste (e-waste) accelerated an alarming 21% in just the last 5 years. Worse, the data and analysis predict that e-waste — already the fastest growing waste stream in the world — will nearly double (from the 2014 baseline) by 2030. North America is a top contributor to this reckless, toxic and unsustainable crisis.
As more and more consumers rushed to purchase new electronic devices like computers and mobile phones, which are increasingly manufactured with shorter life cycles — and corresponding limitations on repair options — a record 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) of products were discarded globally in 2019. This constitutes a tragic waste heap of equipment that was never repaired, resold and reused. And with only 17.4% recovered and recycled, valuable resources like iron, copper, gold and other rare earth minerals are just incinerated — or worse, are leaching with other toxins like mercury into local dumping grounds.
Ignoring these realities won’t make them go away. The e-waste crisis needs our attention. Spotlighting positive efforts underway that deserve recognition and support will foster the confidence that we can change the e-waste tragedy trajectory together. It will take prudent public policy that promotes expanding options and choices for consumers.
In North America, two specific policies that contribute significantly to the e-waste explosion are the limitations on repair options for electronic devices, coupled with the increasing removal of choice for paper-based communications.
Today, far too many electronic devices are designed and manufactured to have shorter life cycles than the prior models. At the same time, the ability of independent repair businesses to access proprietary parts, tools, design specifications and coding is increasingly restricted. The smarter devices become, the fewer the choices for fixing them, and the options that do exist are typically more expensive than just buying a new model.
This doesn’t need to be, and the Right to Repair movement is making progress in the fight against planned obsolescence. Advocates including US PIRG and The Repair Association, along with independent repair businesses are working to change policies that stifle choices and options for getting the things we own fixed. This helps ensure they are not needlessly tossed away as more disposable junk on the growing e-waste mountains.
“It’s absurd that manufacturers block the repair of equipment, especially during a time when there is a massive shortage of computers and the alarm bells are ringing on the problem of electronic waste,” said Nathan Proctor, U.S. PIRG Right to Repair campaign director. “It’s supposed to be reduce, reuse and recycle — in that order. If we want to pursue a more circular economy, we need to prioritize making less stuff, reusing everything we do make, and having good recycling systems. But if we don’t do the first two things, there is no way recycling can keep up, especially for complex products like electronics.”
At the same time, policies that increasingly limit and restrict our options for communications are having a heavier hand in the e-waste pandemic. The choice of paper correspondence is being systematically undermined by regulations, punished by exorbitant and unfair fees — and more and more often, removed altogether by service providers including banks, utilities, telecoms and insurance providers. Forced and aggressively coerced digital communications play a role in pushing consumers to purchase new devices that they might not want — or otherwise would not need — except for the limitations and restrictions imposed on their communications options to receive bills, statements, benefit notices and other critical correspondence.
Likewise, corporate cost-saving efforts to encourage customers to switch to digital-only communications often include messaging about “going green” that is dubious at best. The practice of stating unsubstantiated environmental benefits and misleading consumers about environmental impacts is so widespread that the term “greenwashing” was coined, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Canadian Standards Association have for decades published and updated comprehensive environmental marketing rules to combat the pervasive deception in environmental claims. In this context, the escalating e-waste crisis is completely obscured by the failure to reconcile the reality that allegedly “green” texts or emails are being read on devices that have near zero probability of being refurbished and reused — and in all likelihood won’t ever have their valuable mineral resources salvaged through recycling – with the facts that paper is made with an infinitely renewable resource (trees grown in sustainably managed forests), is easily recycled and is one of the most recycled products in the world.
At the intersection of the right to repair and the preservation of paper options in communications is a circular economy of sustainable production, ever increasing recovery, recycling, repair, remanufacturing and reuse. Together they can and will combine to extend precious resource life cycles, create tremendous employment opportunities across each interdependent sector — and have a measurable impact in slowing the spread of e-waste in North America (and around our planet).