e-Waste: A Growing Environmental Challenge
It’s the holiday season and you probably have some kind of tech on your list for Santa this year. Whether it’s a new smartphone, a game console or a new laptop – that thing is packed inside with some pretty gnarly stuff. Mercury, arsenic, cadmium, lead and beryllium – these and many other toxic materials are inside your electronics and can be released into the soil or even the groundwater if they are landfilled. ‘But there’s such a tiny amount of all that in my laptop,’ you might say. Fair enough – but consider this, while in 2011, 41.5 million tons of e-waste was generated, the projected volume of e-waste for 2016 is 93.5 million tons. Of that huge total, it is estimated that 70 – 80% will be landfilled. With gross numbers that huge, even if the amount of lead or arsenic in a single computer is very small, it adds up dangerously.
Victims of Progress
A big part of the e-waste problem is caused by our own success as a society. The computing industry has followed Moore’s Law for decades – approximately every two years the computing power of available devices doubles. Meanwhile, the cost of devices plummets both because of improved manufacturing technology and because of the fierce cost competition as components and entire devices become commoditized. In this kind of environment, there is a strong motivation among consumers to upgrade devices very frequently. And as most of these devices are more or less “personal” in nature, there is not a particularly large secondary market for used devices. Hence, every year a significant proportion of existing devices is discarded.
Lean, Mean…. And not Very Green
While computing power doubles and price halves, the size of most devices is shrinking very quickly as well. Consumers demand an ultra-thin smartphone or laptop. Weight also must be cut to the bone. All of this miniaturization makes devices extremely difficult to dismantle. Unfortunately, the great majority of all this work must be done by hand. This makes the cost of reclaiming all the materials very high.
The final challenge in the puzzle is unfavorable economics. While the cost of reclaiming the materials is very high, the market value of the materials is very low. As mentioned above, the quantity of materials in any single device is not very high. But to make matters worse, global commodity prices are plummeting as economic growth slows in China and other emerging markets. The overall economics of the e-waste recovery industry are highly unfavorable in the short-run and this challenge makes it less likely that entrepreneurs will invest the necessary capital to improve the technology and cost efficiency of material recovery in the medium to long-run.
e-waste is a tough problem all the way around. One thing we know is true is that re-using a device whenever possible is much better than trying to recycle the components after the device has been discarded. We are proud of the work we do to keep your devices working productively for you. The longer you keep them and get good use out of them, the less e-waste goes into the landfill. We’re trying to do our little part to help on a big problem! If you have a device that’s giving you trouble, give us a try before you throw it away. Call us today!