By 2016, the European Commission could be enforcing recently voted legislation that would make all mobile phone manufacturers agree to use a universal charger, combatable with all devices. Besides being more convenient than having several chargers depending on the brand of phone you own, the new law is mainly aimed at reducing the large volume of electronic waste. Apple, Nokia, Motorola and Samsung are just some of the brands who have signed an agreement to support and abide by the new law. While it might provide an inconvenience for some, many manufacturers, mostly those who make android devices, already use a Micro-USB charger, the proposed universal style charger.
While our increasing reliance and advancement in technology has brought about many benefits, companies and individuals alike are still coming to terms with the many responsibilities that have also arrived with the dawn of the digital age. Not only are product life cycles in decline, but what to do with your once shiny device once it breaks beyond repair, or is up for renewal, is increasingly becoming a worrying issue. In the US, around 80 to 85% of electronic products are thrown away into landfills or incinerated. While e-waste only makes up around 2% of America’s municipal waste in landfills, it equates to 70% of its overall toxic waste.
What is so toxic about electronic waste you may ask? Well firstly, electronic waste is composed of many hazardous components made up from, for example lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Once in landfills these seep into the local environment, both into the earth, air and water, which among other things also can end up polluting food supply chains. Such toxins can cause bodily harm due to exposure, such as damage to the central nervous systems as well as organs. Burning electronics, as a means for disposal or to access the valuable minerals such as gold and copper is also hazardous, as the process releases carcinogenic chemicals.
Recycling used electronics would seem to be the most obvious answer, regarding what to do with e-waste. It is however a venture that has yet to be undertaken with much enthusiasm. Current data suggests that only 15% to 20% of American e-waste is recycled, with the remainder either being buried, burned or exported to nations with less stringent health and safety regulations.
Under the Basel Convention of 1989, such exports are banned in Europe. That said, although illegal, European traders have still found loop holes to bypass the regulations. Through labelling e-waste as ‘goods for refurbishing or reuse’ they can technically be exported, even if upon arrival they end up in a landfill. Concerning the amount of e-waste Europe exports, at best, the European Environmental Agency can give an estimate of between 250,000 tonnes to 1.3m tonnes. However there is little data available or kept on the amount of e-waste in Europe.
For those companies who have invested in the appropriate reverse logistics infrastructure, many are beginning to see strong returns on their investment. Recycling ewaste alone, when conducted properly, can be a profitable venture. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium and more than 20,000 pounds of copper can be acquired through recycling 1 million mobile phones. In addition, through integrating reverse logistics strategies, such as returns management, and either product repair and refurbishment, companies can actually cut down on manufacturing costs through reselling refurbished goods, of which there is an emerging market.
Apple has been crowned “the gold standard” of refurbished goods, with claims from reviewers that refurbished items handle as good as new, at around a 30% reduced end-price. Like many companies, Apple uses a take-back program to dispose of your unwanted Apple products, abd in some cases, will actually pay you to take your old electronics off your hands.
It is this course action which seems to be the most obvious solution: a paid for service, either for companies to deal with e-waste responsibly— paying a local third party to dissemble old electronics— and for companies to encourage consumers to recycle their unwanted devices by giving them back for some form of reward. Creating an emerging industry for e-waste recycling and remanufacturing could prove to be the most sustainable and the most profitable way to deal with e-waste.
Aside from Apple, what other e-waste ventures and strategies have caught your attention?
Editor’s note: The comment section has already been closed, however a reader recently contacted me about including a link to Verizon’s electronics recycling information page: http://www.verizonwireless.com/landingpages/device-trade-in/