Rapid innovation and lowering costs have dramatically increased access to electronic products and digital technology, with many benefits. This has led to an increase in the use of electronic devices and equipment. The unintended consequence of this is a steep growth of electronic and electrical waste: e-waste.
E-waste is now the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. It is estimated this waste stream reached 48.5 million tonnes in 2018. Globally, society only deals with 20% of e-waste appropriately and there is little data on what happens to the rest, which for the most part ends up in landfill, or is disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions. Yet e-waste is worth at least $62.5 billion annually, which is more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of most countries.
Changes in technology such as cloud computing and the internet of things (IoT) could hold the potential to “dematerialize” the electronics industry. The rise of service business models and better product tracking and takeback could lead to global circular value chains. Material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential.
If the sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide. A new vision for the production and consumption of electronic and electrical goods based on the circular economy is needed. It is easy for e-waste to be framed as a post-consumer problem, but the issue encompasses the lifecycle of the devices everyone uses. Designers, manufacturers, investors, traders, miners, raw material producers, consumers, policy-makers and others have a crucial role to play in reducing waste, retaining value within the system, extending the economic and physical life of an item, as well as its ability to be repaired, recycled and reused.