Electronic waste, also known as e-waste, is when an electronic product reaches the end of its usable life and is disregarded. Unfortunately, many people do not dispose of their devices properly through ideal mobile phone recycling methods, and they end up in landfills. According to The United Nations University, 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste were collected globally in 2019 alone, documenting a new record. In another light, this is a 21% increase in e-waste within just 5 years.

What Are the Impacts on Biodiversity?

Did you know that most electronics contain toxic materials, including nickel, mercury, zinc, chromium, barium, and flame retardants? Because of this, the impacts of e-waste on biodiversity are quite substantial. For instance, when electronic devices are not disposed of correctly and end up in landfills, they seep into the groundwater, which harms animals on both the land and in the sea, including people. Research has shown that these dangerous metals and toxic chemicals cannot be organically broken down and can pose long term threats.

One of the most noted ones is that it can pollute smaller animals (like earthworms and small fish), which can harm larger animals that ingest them. Another is how mercury can harm plants' growth, poisoning their leaves, and thus endangering both people and animals that eat them. Lastly, when e-waste is heated up from the sun, it releases those harmful chemicals into the air, damaging the atmosphere while simultaneously burdening birds and flying insects.

Zero E-Waste Circular Economy

Resíduos eletrônicos separados por propriedade
Photo by Vilmar Simion / Unsplash

Big problems clearly need more prominent solutions. Though there is a total of 67 countries that have correlating legislation in place to deal with their own e-waste they generate, the answer should be not to handle it, but to stop it from occurring in the first place. One way that could do such a thing would be to establish what is called a “zero e-waste circular economy." This is a theorized system that would replace the linear economy, as all devices and materials would never depreciate. They remain at a high value, removing the need to throw it away at all.

But to do this would require some different aspects and testing before implementation. For instance, products would need to be designing for reuse and be more durable. Many companies have already stepped in the right direction towards this method by removing hazardous material from their products and removing waste from their device value chain. This process, if adopted by everyone, would allow for devices to be in circulation much longer and when it finally does stop working, people would be more enticed to disassemble the parts, knowing they can be used for something else. Another perk is that going this route could have vital monetized impacts, potentially reducing the electronic costs up to 7% by 2030, and an estimated 14% by 2040. For more detail, see the 2019 World Economic Forum document, pages 16-18.

*Though this would be an excellent solution to reduce e-waste and promote more mobile phone recycling, it would entail companies to redesign their products, which can be costly. Another issue could be that not everyone would be driven to recycle and reuse as intended.

The Next Steps for Building an E-Waste Resolved Future

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The only way to build an e-waste resolve future is through the efforts done in the present. Though a circular economy would be ideal and would significantly reduce the impacts on biodiversity, it should coincide with other leading efforts as well. For example, companies can adopt reverse logistics, meaning when their product can no longer be used, consumers are instructed to send it back to them (aka reverse supply chain). Along with this, more places can also invest in what is called “Urban mining" supporting the development of technologies to harvest metals and minerals from e-waste, as China has already demonstrated. In the end, there is likely not one single resolution, but collective efforts could be the fundamental reality that will cultivate positive change.