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E-Waste: An Urgent Problem That’s Largely Ignored

By Dick Weisinger

Every year enormous amounts of electronic products are discarded as they are updated with newer and more advanced replacements. Unfortunately, less than 20 percent of discarded electronics are recycled.

The surprising fact is that this is happening despite the fact that the component materials of the waste are quite valuable. A UN report on e-waste found that a ton of discarded electronics contains more gold than a ton of gold ore.

A report by Facts and Factors estimates that the e-waste market is growing at a rate of 20 percent annually and will be a $13 billion market by 2026.

Currently millions and millions of electronics like televisions and cellphones are being buried in landfills instead of being recycled. A study at Yale University found that since 2015 the total mass of the electronics being buried declined slightly, but only because newer devices are smaller and more sleek than older televisions and monitors that used bulky cathode-ray tubes.

The Yale report found that “while a mass‐based end‐of‐life product recovery mechanism can be effective in waste diversion, it is not responsive to the decreasing dominance of larger devices and increasing prevalence of lighter, multifunctional products containing critical metal content in the waste stream. These complex components present barriers to sustainable materials management, particularly because recovering the valuable materials they contain is hindered by a lack of recycling infrastructure and commercial‐scale recovery technology.”

The 2020 pandemic has only accelerated the problem. A survey of companies by Blancco found that the move to work from home caused many companies to invest in new technology hardware for their workers from home.

Vendors like Apple and Amazon have been faulted for not doing enough to address the e-waste problem. The UK members of parliament said in a statement that “A lot of e-waste goes to landfill, incineration or is dumped overseas. Under current laws producers and retailers of electronics are responsible for this waste, yet they are clearly not fulfilling that responsibility.”

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