Think repair, not discard.
By John Atseye* & Talatu Tarfa**
Electrical and electronic equipment are essential for modern society to function and are strongly linked with higher living standards. The manufacturing of these equipment require the use of some natural resources like copper, aluminum, iron and even some other precious metals like platinum and silver. These equipment are hazardous, non-biodegradable to the environment, including soil, air, water, and living things when they are improperly disposed of to the environment when they get bad. Toxic pollutants are released into the environment when open-air burning and acid baths are employed to recover precious elements from electronic components. These practices can also expose workers to high levels of contaminants like lead, mercury, beryllium, thallium, cadmium, and arsenic, as well as Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) and polychlorinated biphenyls, all of which can cause irreversible health effects like cancers, miscarriages and neurological damage.
According to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic trash was created worldwide in 2019 (7.3 kg per capita), up 21% in only five years. Global e-waste — discarded items with a battery or plug — is expected to reach 74 Mt by 2030, nearly tripling in only 16 years, according to the research. This makes e-waste the world’s fastest-growing residential waste source, owing to increased rates of electric and electronic equipment consumption, shorter life cycles, and limited repair choices.
Statistics have it that only 17.4 % of the e-waste generated in 2019 was collected and recycled. This implies that gold, silver, copper, platinum, and other high-value, recoverable minerals worth an estimated $57 billion — an amount larger than most countries’ GDP — were mainly discarded or burnt rather than being collected for treatment and reuse. It is said that every year, almost 50 million tons of e-waste are generated, which equates to more than 6 kilos for every person on the globe. Air pollution is one of the most prevalent effects of E-waste on the environment. A typical example called “Welcome to Lagos”, a British documentary on Lagos and its people, depicts a group of garbage scavengers who scour various landfills in Lagos for unlawfully dumped gadgets such as cables, blenders, and other items in order to profit from the recycling of these wastes. These groups of people would burn wires or smelt aluminum in the open air to extract the copper and other minerals (which are valuable to the market), which emit hydrocarbons into the air.
Electronic gadgets have the ability to boost economies and enhance lives while causing little environmental damage — but only if we rethink their life cycles and look beyond recycling to reuse or refurbish them. Smartphones and gadgets are not the most obvious waste streams, but they still need to be handled. As the usage of smartphones increases, so will waste streams and the toxicity associated with them, as well as carbon emissions. The French government passed a legislation in 2019 requiring the display of clear information about the repairability of electrical and electronic equipment for customers. The index’s goal is to encourage customers to buy more repairable items and manufacturers to make their products more repairable. It applies to five product categories sold in France after 1st January 2021, including common household devices such as smartphones, laptops, televisions, washing machines, and lawnmowers.
The “right to repair” should also extend to software updates, which means that companies should no longer be able to refuse to update software after a certain amount of time has passed (often five years). Changes like this might keep phones in use that would otherwise be discarded.
An outdated phone may frequently be brought back to life with a simple repair, such as a new screen or battery. Data is cleaned first from phones that are still functional. They are then repaired and sold to a reputable partner so that someone else can make use of them.
The capacity to repair phones will be critical for resource conservation, e-waste reduction, and climate mitigation, and most importantly, for creating a circular economy for electronics and its users. It is said that there is 100 times more gold in a ton of e-waste than in a gold ore. Furthermore, for every 1 million recycled mobile phone handsets, an estimated 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium may be recovered. This seems to be the reason people sort garbage for used electronics so they can burn them out to get some of these minerals to sell and make income. Rather, it will be better to sort the used electronics, repair them then return to the market to sell than to burn them — thereby causing more hazard to the environment through the emission of harmful gases.
John Atseye* is a Senior Associate, Energy Access Clean Technology Hub
Talatu Tarfa** is Deputy Manager, Energy Access Clean Technology Hub