Electronics are everywhere around us, and life in the 21st century is unimaginable without them. Computers, mobile phones, televisions, etc. are ubiquitous and have transformed the way the world works. However, like any technology, there are problems that need to be addressed, and electronic waste is one of the major one for the environment.
Electronic waste or e-waste grows at an exponential rate because the industry churns out new products at an ever faster rate. This renders old products useless. This is quite unlike the traditional machines that we use. A car, for instance, will not become obsolete even after a decade while a laptop might become so after just a couple of years. Thus the consumption of new electronics is indeed startling. We need to take note of where the old discarded electronics go in order to ensure they are disposed off in the right ways.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives some facts on e-waste. Some of the interesting ones are –
- Over 112,000 computers (desktops and laptops combined) were discarded in 2007 in the US every single day.
- 31.9 million units of computer monitors were discarded in 2007, including both CRT and flat panel screens.
- The recycling rate of electronics in the US is a mere 14%. In comparison, over 75% of printed newspaper is recycled in the US. However, this is still better than plastics, which have a recycling rate of just about 7%.
- The total e-waste generated in the world is anywhere between 20-50 million tons. The figures for a number of countries are hard to come by. The US accounts for over 3 million tons of e-waste.
However, the problem is only going to get worse. This is because, it is estimated that the developing world will triple its e-waste in the next 5-6 years alone. In addition, a lot of old electronics get stored at homes instead of being discarded immediately. In fact, according to a HP fact sheet 68% of consumers store used or unwanted computer equipment at their homes.
On the other hand, we keep consuming more and more electronics each year.
- The US alone sees over 500 million units of consumer units bought each year.
- The Consumer Electronics Association estimates about $165 billion spent on consumer electronics in 2010.
- The problem is not just with computers but with a number of other electronic equipment as well. For example, Gartner Inc. estimates 1.2 billion mobile phones sold all over the globe, with about 172 million of those being smartphones.
Electronics recycling is not very common, but it is a good idea. Not only does it save and protect the environment from toxins such as Mercury, Cadmium, Lead, etc. that are found in most of the electronics but it can also be profitable for companies and the industry as a whole. Glass, plastic, and a number of different metals can be recovered with the help of electronics recycling.
- One metric ton of circuit boards can contain between 80 and 1,500 g of gold and between 160 and 210 kg of copper.
- One ton of used mobile phones contains about 130 kg of copper, 3.5 kg of silver, 340 grams of gold and 140 grams of palladium, according to StEP.
Thus, there is immense scope, economic and environmental, for electronics recycling and hopefully we will see companies and consumers more enthusiastic about this issue in the future.