The electronic waste collection conundrum

The electronic waste collection conundrum
Heather Clancy
Thu, 07/16/2020 - 01:15

The primary reason I started covering the business of sustainability during the 2008 financial crisis wasn’t just because I was laid off from my position as editor of a technology trade publication. Quite simply, I had become obsessed with the tech industry’s then-blasé attitude about the seemingly intractable problem of electronic waste. 

A dozen years later, it’s still a massive problem — although data released this week by Morgan Stanley suggest that shifting consumer mindsets about electronics recycling, refurbishment, repair and trade-in programs could be a catalyst for change.

First, some stats. According to a December report by the United Nations Environment Program, roughly 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste is produced globally on an annual basis. By weight, that’s more than all of the commercial airliners ever manufactured, and only 20 percent of the stuff is formally recycled. (The operative word being formally, because a lot of it gets handled in informal ways that can inflict serious human and environmental damage. But that’s a subject for another essay.)

The numbers will never scale until collection is scaled.

When I started mining some of my stories from a year ago, those figures were eerily familiar. The amount of e-stuff collected and processed for some useful end — either mined for metals and rare earths or refurbished for a second life — definitely has been growing, thanks to companies such as Apple, Dell, HP Inc. and Samsung. But not nearly enough when you think of all the gadgets that have made it into the world’s hands over the past 10 years. 

Interest in seeing that change is growing among consumers — at least before the pandemic really set in — according to research fielded in February by Morgan Stanley. More than half the individuals the financial services company surveyed — 10,000 people from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, China and India — said they recycle old electronics devices. That’s up from 24 percent just two years ago. Close to half of them, 45 percent, said electronics recycling should be handled by the manufacturer.

Furthermore, close to 80 percent of the respondents reported that they repaired a device — or planned to repair — at least one gadget; 70 percent had bought or planned on buying a refurbished one. "As advanced robotics technology becomes more accessible, repairs and chip-set upgrades could become a more compelling method in making devices more ‘sustainable,’" Morgan Stanley noted in its report.

Great idea, but how does all this stuff get to a location where it can be repaired, refurbished or recycling? "The numbers will never scale until collection is scaled," long-time electronics recycling executive Kabira Stokes told me when I chatted with her earlier this week.