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E-Waste and the Climate Crisis: Creating the New Digital World at What Cost?
By
Volume 46, Number 3 - May/June 2022

While changing out batteries in my smart TV remote recently, I was thinking about how quickly the batteries have to be replaced. In less than a year, I had amassed almost an entire Ziploc baggie full of them. In an attempt to curb my battery waste, I dove into a Google search about how to properly recycle them. To my surprise, I learned that single-use batteries such as Energizer or Duracell can be thrown out with the rest of the trash, but can also be recycled, if you are willing to search and take the time to find an appropriate avenue to do so. The battery search also reminded me of all the old technology we have in the house—old iPhones, laptops, and computer monitors—that just take up space. Unlike the batteries, this old tech cannot be thrown out with the weekly trash, so it collects dust in our storage closet.

Much of consumer technology design is driven by planned obsolescence, a tactic embraced by many of the most popular technology companies. Planned obsolescence, which has been good for sales but bad for the environment, is not the only culprit, though. There’s our desire for the newest technology. When we upgrade our devices, more e-waste accumulates. As we race to get the latest and greatest tech models, we are slowly contributing to a very serious issue—the rapid growth of electronic waste (e-waste). In fact, e-waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world: An estimated 57.4 million tons of waste was expected to be generated in 2021 alone, and it’s grown by 2%–3% annually in recent years (“International E-Waste Day: 57.4M Tones Expected in 2021”; weee-forum.org/ws_news/international-e-waste-day-2021). As we enter a new phase in the climate crisis, it is time we truly consider the environmental costs and challenges that are arising from our increased technology reliance and explore how we can responsibly utilize technology moving forward.

CRITICAL ISSUES AND POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS TO E-WASTE

E-waste consists of electrical and electronic equipment that is outdated, unwanted, or broken. One reason e-waste is such a threat to our environment is because toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, and beryllium are used to construct electronic products. E-waste is not biodegradable, so it cannot be thrown out with other waste. Otherwise, hazardous chemicals would be released into the air, water, and soil. The “International E-Waste Day” article referenced above says that in addition to environmental effects, many of these products can cause health problems such as muscle, central nervous system, liver, and even brain damage. It is imperative that this waste is disposed of—or even better, recycled—properly to protect the health of millions around the world.

Currently, e-waste is either not being recycled (only about 17.4% in 2019 was disposed of appropriately), or it is being improperly discarded. About 60%–90% of e-waste is actually illegally traded or dumped per year via e-waste centers (“The Growing Environmental Risks of E-Waste,” Nov. 20, 2021; genevaenvironment network.org/resources/updates/the-growing-environmental-risks- of-e-waste). Even more alarming is the fact that, in developing countries, some of the individuals harvesting and handling this waste are children, adolescents, and women. Many are now suffering from growing health problems related to their exposure to e-waste. In fact, a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) lists this as a growing health threat that should be addressed for these at-risk groups (“Soaring E-Waste Affects the Health of Millions of Children, WHO Warns,” June 15, 2021; who.int/news/item/15-06-2021-soaring-e-waste-affects-the-health-of-millions-of-children-who-warns). When it comes to e-waste’s impact on the climate crisis, these health issues are only the tip of the iceberg The steadily increasing demand for so many consumer electronics also increases companies’ carbon footprints, which results in more CO2 emissions in our atmosphere.

One of the biggest weapons we have against e-waste is recycling. Many experts agree that extended outreach on proper recycling techniques is vital to address its growth. Despite this information, we are not recycling nearly enough in comparison to what we are accumulating. This lag could be due to the fact that when done correctly, e-recycling is a costly process, and locating reliable companies and sites to dispose of e-waste is a challenge in many areas of the world. This accessibility is often contingent upon where someone lives, if it is a more rural or isolated environment, odds are that a person might have to ship e-waste to dispose of it, which is not a budget-friendly option. In other instances, some consumers who think they have chosen a reputable company are instead buying into a scam. These fake re cycling facilities simply ship their waste abroad and do not properly recycle it. We need to get ahead of the pace of e-waste accumulating. This means recycling but also considering other options to slow the growth of e-waste (“Recycling Is Not the Answer to the E-Waste Crisis,” Oct. 29, 2018; forbes.com/sites/vianney vaute/2018/10/29/recycling-is-not-the-answer-to-the-e-waste- crisis/?sh=4b2e36397381).

CONSUMERISM: RETHINKING AUTO-UPGRADES

Individual consumers have some options if they would like to curb their accumulation of e-waste. Refurbishing is a popular consumer trend that confronts the planned obsolescence model. Purchasing used home appliances is not a new practice, but employing the same idea for consumer tech—refurbishing old smartphones, laptops, etc.—is a new weapon in the fight to reduce e-waste. There are many companies popping up that will refurbish old electronics for sale. Decluttr (decluttr.com), a highly rated online store, offers a place to sell old technology and purchase refurbished technology as well.

Big-time tech retailers such as Best Buy, Amazon, and Apple also offer tech trade-in programs where users trade in their old devices and receive store credit toward purchasing a newer model. These sites also offer the option to purchase refurbished consumer technology. For the most part, refurbished items function and look brand new. Selling older technology that will be refurbished as well as purchasing refurbished are two simple ways of helping to reduce e-waste.

This next idea might be difficult for some individuals, but others could take a second glance at the upgrades in that latest device model to see if it is worth all the buzz or if it is better to wait for a newer model that down the line will offer more significant upgrades. For instance, Apple’s iPhone 13 versus 12’s biggest differences are longer battery life and better displays, both of which are minor (“iPhone 13 vs iPhone 12: Here Are the Biggest Differences,” Feb. 15, 2022; tomsguide.com/face-off/iphone-13- vs-iphone-12-biggest-differences-to-expect). Waiting an extra year between upgrades might not make a huge dent in each person’s e-waste, but as consumers, we drive the market and could send a message to tech companies that still utilize planned obsolescence as a driving model for their products and that count on the buy-in of early technology adopters.

LIBRARY LEADERS

Libraries are leading the way in combating the growing e- waste issue. Worthington County Public Libraries in Columbus, Ohio, have hosted recycling events the past several years alongside RenTek (rentek.net). RenTek takes older technology and then uses it for job training programs for individuals with differing abilities. At the end of the events in 2020, 9,627 pounds of collected waste translated into more than 240 hours of job training for individuals participating in their programs (“Library Lines: Recycling E-Waste in Worthington Helps a Good Cause,” Oct. 28, 2021; dispatch.com/story/news/local/communities/worthington/ 2021/10/28/library-lines-recycling-e-waste-worthington-helps-good-cause/8555858002).

This is only one county library system participating in a recycling event of this nature. Imagine the possibilities if more places were able to participate in similarly styled events! Multnomah County Library (Portland, Ore.; multcolib.org/about/we-practice-sustainability) proudly dedicates its operations to sustainability. It helps recycle e-waste in addition to encouraging patrons to check out energy usage monitors to keep tabs on their in-home electronic device energy usage.

Academic libraries and college campuses are also participating in the green movement by hosting recycling events and participating in green initiatives across campus. A quick Google search yields several library guides from university libraries around the world that cover the topics of e-waste in detail. The University of Illinois Library has a whole section in its Green Libraries guide related to electronic waste disposal, complete with information regarding disposing of old electronics (Green Libraries: Electronics Use and Disposal; guides.library.illinois.edu/greenlibraries/purchasing/electronics). Portland State University has an entire section dedicated to e-waste disposal as well. It collects e-waste from staff and faculty to send to a third-party recycling facility (Electronic Waste; pdx.edu/environmental-health-safety/electronic-waste).


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Carly Lamphere, research and instruction librarian at Portland State University, would like you to know that she purchased her newest smartphone refurbished and cannot tell the difference from her phone and a brand-new model!

 

Comments? Email the editor-in-chief: marydee@xmission.com

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