The World Faces a Tidal Wave of E-Waste


E-waste (discarded electronic equipment) piles up at a staggering rate. It comprises the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, with more than 50 million metric tons produced every year—equivalent in weight to all commercial aircraft ever built. And this mounting problem will only get worse. In 2019, the world generated a record-setting 53.6 million tons of e-waste, a quantity predicted to reach 74 million metric tons by 2030. Only 17% of the discarded electronic devices was recycled. The rest was sent to landfills, incinerated, shipped to less developed countries, or traded illegally.

The Anatomy of E-Waste

About 24% of the e-waste in 2019 comprised large equipment, including previous generations cellular towers, copy machines, and electrical and communications related infrastructure equipment. While about 44% was dominated by screens and monitors (televisions, laptops, tablets, and the like), followed by small IT and telecommunications devices and equipment (modems, set-top-boxes, servers, routers, mobile devices, PCs, printers, and landline phones). The remaining 32% included small electronics, such as processors, electric shavers, cameras and electronic components.

The ramifications of wireless technology on e-waste, specifically the emerging tsunami of 5G-ready devices, are huge. The switch to 5G marks one of the largest turnovers in electronics the world has ever seen, multitudes greater than the transition from black-and-white TV to color or analog to digital. While 5G wireless technology potentially can benefit the environment in many ways, it will wreak havoc on the pile-up of e-waste. The required changes to underlying wireless infrastructure will result in more cellular devices being discarded than ever before. The demand for raw materials will increase, and millions of small cell towers must be built to support the millimeter-wave spectrum 5G operates in.

Fanning the Rise of E-Waste

Dovetailing the explosion of 5G is consumers’ unabashed desire for the latest and greatest technology. 5G mobile subscriptions worldwide are predicted to surpass 2.7 billion by 2025. In the U.S., the upgrade cycle for consumer smartphones averages 32 months. Globally, the number of smartphone subscriptions far exceeds the number of people on the planet, by tens of millions.

Meanwhile, the world’s population is growing, economic prosperity reaches more people, and technological development only gets faster. Lower prices for electronic and IT products lead to shorter product lifespans. Devices are designed for obsolescence when companies update the design or software and discontinue support for older models. It’s just easier and cheaper for consumers to buy a new device than to fix the old one.

On a world-scale, regulations governing how e-waste should be handled are ad hoc and, to a large extent, unenforced. The focus has been mostly on collecting electronic products, and not enough effort has gone into building infrastructure for processing and discarding e-waste safely and responsibly.

The Not-So-Hidden Costs of E-Waste

To start, old doesn’t necessarily mean obsolete when it comes to electronics. Sometimes, repairing or upgrading a product with additional memory, hard drives, or software can reinvigorate the device and make it work more efficiently than before.

Many consumers are unaware that their cell phones, computers, stereos, and other electronics might contain hazardous materials that can have devastating and long-term effects on the environment, ecosystems, wildlife, and human health if not disposed of properly.

Substances commonly used in electronics include mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), and brominated flame retardants. For instance, heavy metals found in mobile phones and computer batteries can seep into the soil, contaminating underlying groundwater or nearby crops. Improperly dismantling or incinerating e-waste releases fine-particle toxins in the air that can travel thousands of miles, generating pollution in their wake and jeopardizing respiratory health.

Because reusing electronic devices and products consumes few natural resources and returns equipment to the consumer market rather quickly, it’s more beneficial to the environment than recycling. Unfortunately, due to the many challenges faced by product owners, it has historically been much easier to recycle products, than to find a new home for a company's unwanted products.

A Circular Economy for Electronics

Overall, it’s best to resell excess or used inventory, rather than dispose of it or recycle. In a circular economy for electronics, these products and parts would never be scrapped as e-waste. Rather, e-waste is minimized or, ideally, prevented altogether. Devices and components are kept in use longer. When a product reaches the end of its usable life, new products are manufactured from the materials, and scarce valuable resources recovered or recycled.

Today, a large number of electronics that are discarded as e-waste isn’t actually waste. Rather, it's functioning equipment or spare parts that can be legitimately marketed and resold, or sent out for recycling. Take telecommunication manufacturers, distributors and service providers, for example, who are plagued with functioning, new and used, excess and obsolete inventory. These companies grapple with a variety of factors that can balloon their inventory, such as having to meet high minimum order quantities, large volumes of returned goods, long lead or delivery times, and fluctuating product demand.

The operations staff responsible for handling excess and obsolete inventory might have to offload products or parts that fall outside their core business or area of expertise. Leading them to turn broker dealers for support with selling the products. But these dealers may know even less about the items. Most excess inventory that isn’t subsequently sold, eventually gets shipped to a recycler (at the seller’s expense) or tossed in the trash.

Some businesses exist to help make it easier to encourage the resale of existing inventory at market value, and help to better address this persistent inventory problem. For example, TrustClarity takes large excess and obsolete inventory lists and, using AI technology, helps companies price and sell their products through appropriate sales channels online.

Looking Forward

Consumers, businesses, resellers, government, and public and private institutions all play a role in controlling the world’s e-waste. Outdated devices can be donated to individuals or businesses who still find the devices to be valuable. Electronic products should not be thrown in with ordinary household or business trash but rather handled by certified haulers or taken to designated drop-off locations. Retailers can offer trade-in programs or incentives for consumers who want to upgrade and surrender their old device, which retailers can reuse or recycle. Companies can participate in circular economy friendly programs like TrustClarity’s to make sure their electronic products stay in use longer, and hopefully remain out of landfills.

On small scales and large scales, individuals, businesses, and formidable tech alliances are inching toward creating a circular economy for electronics. Their efforts are critical in shrinking the amount of obsolete and excess electronics inventory that is clogging landfills and choking the environment worldwide. Only far-reaching commitment and collective action will stop the planet’s fastest-growing waste stream.