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E-waste brings opportunity for transitioning to circular economy

A worker handles a circuit board
The recycling rate for e-waste is less than 20 percent globally, and in the U.S., it is less than 10 percent.

E-waste - defined as electronics that are nearing the end of their useful life - is piling up at rates faster than ever before. Yet, the recycling rate for e-waste is less than 20 percent globally, and in the U.S., it is less than 10 percent.

This is a clear area of concern, as it is uncertain as to how the other 80-90 percent of e-waste is being managed during the disposal process and the location of final placement. Many electronics contain toxic heavy metals and materials such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. E-waste that is improperly discarded can potentially leach into groundwater and soil which can be harmful to human health and our environment. 

Though called "waste," there is inherent value in the materials of used electronics that should be recognized for reuse, recycling, or refurbishment to minimize the actual waste that might end up in a landfill or improperly disposed in an unprotected dump site either in the U.S. or abroad. When electronics have reached their end-of-life, they must not only be handled in a responsible and compliant manner, but organizations must also focus on solutions that reduce their potential environmental impact due to their hazardous components.

Below, we will explore ways to transition to a circular economy for this material.

Improving the circular economy of e-waste

Recycling and waste diversion professionals involved in the environmental health and safety (EH&S) and sustainability efforts for their company should keep used and expired IT equipment and electronics handling top of mind during the change and disposal process to ensure proper destruction and final placement. Whether due to the risk of sensitive information exposure, or because the hardware could be unethically disposed of, recycling professionals should have a clear insight on where their company's e-waste goes and what is done with it.

According to the EPA, an undetermined amount of used electronics are shipped from the U.S. and other developed countries to countries that lack the capacity to reject imports or to handle these materials appropriately. Without proper standards and enforcement, improper practices may result in public health and environmental concerns, even in countries where processing facilities exist. If e-waste is instead sent to a legitimate, certified recycler, then no environmental harm is caused, and commodities generated can go back into the reuse market as part of the circular economy.

To improve collection and the circular economy, more countries are taking action and creating policies around e-waste and its handling. The annual Global E-waste Monitor reports that, since 2014, the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation or regulation has increased from 61 to 78 countries. However, regulatory advances in some regions are slow, enforcement is poor, and policy, legislation or regulation does not yet stimulate the collection and proper management of e-waste due to lack of investment and political motivation.

For effective electronics disposal and recycling that promotes a circular economy, companies like Clean Earth have established a dual focus: benefiting the environment by reducing waste while safeguarding private data. An organization's dedicated e-waste management partner should serve as a critical part in the lifecycle of electronic waste products. An e-waste management partner should be committed to proper end-of-life management of electronics containing sensitive data and components hazardous to the environment backed by proper permits, certifications, and available reporting.

The relevance of electronic devices expires faster and faster due to the rapid advancements in technology. As a result, e-waste volumes are increasing.

COVID's impact on e-waste recycling

One of the main issues worsening e-waste is the extremely high consumption rate of electronics. Per capita, around the globe, people are purchasing more electronics year over year. In fact, on average, the total weight (excluding photovoltaic panels) of global Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) consumption increases annually by 2.5 million metric tons. Though there was a dip in electronic purchases in Q2 and Q3 of 2020 because of the pandemic, that rate has already picked back up.

The relevance of electronic devices expires faster and faster due to the rapid advancements in technology. As a result, e-waste volumes are increasing. From toasters to remote controls, everything is becoming a "smart" device, with more products being developed with PC boards and other electronic components. At the start of the pandemic, multiple industries around the world saw an increase in the amount of people working from home, along with the entire education system across the U.S. transitioning to online learning. These transitions created a gap between the expired electronics now at residences and the disposal and data destruction process at the office or facility.

In addition, the demand for electronic devices increased where they were once not needed. Collectively with these changes, people around the world were challenged with how to discard more data sensitive electronics. Fast forward to today, many companies are transitioning to remote, not renewing leases and cleaning out offices. All of these new transitions from the start of the pandemic to today have created more risk for e-waste to be improperly discarded. 

Right now, due to COVID-19, there is a tight labour market, and some e-waste handlers may be experiencing a reduction in manpower and therefore employees may not have the vast amount of training and experience required to properly manage the material. Therefore, it is important to find a trusted e-waste management partner with the insight and experience that will bring companies transparency and peace of mind to the e-waste recycling and disposal process.

Future of e-waste and the "right to repair" movement

In July, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. One part of the executive order instructed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to stop manufacturers from preventing repairs from refurbishers or end users. The FTC outlined rules that manufacturers have to follow, such as releasing components and information on how devices are assembled. This is a step-change, as previously, electronic manufacturers were not required to disclose such information. But now, by having this information available, people can start to understand how to fix these devices themselves or through a refurbisher.

By nature, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are not incentivized to create products that are long-lasting or easily repaired by others. The "right to repair" movement, with the previously mentioned legislation behind it, aims to further increase access to once-proprietary information, giving individuals or refurbishers the ability to repair and modify their consumer electronic devices. This is a significant potential shift because oftentimes the manufacturer requires the consumer to use only their offered services. The "right to repair" means refurbishers can extend the life of the product for its current user or find it a second home with a new user, therefore reducing the number of devices that are discarded. This movement could mean less e-waste is produced.

If this movement is successful, it would mean that authorized refurbishers would have access to documentation, software and other tools that would enable them to put these devices back into the reuse market.

Beyond the right to repair, the future of electronics recycling is ensuring secure data destruction. Consumers and businesses need to feel assured regarding what happens to their data when their electronics are spent. Every cell phone, GPS and laptop says a lot about an individual and their habits - how they bank, what they buy, where they drive - and it needs to be protected. All e-waste recycling solutions should also confirm that data from discarded electronics is safe and secure, and teams handling the material should do their part to promote the correct treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment to enable reuse and recycling.

Mark Kasper is the Chief Operations Officer of Clean Earth.