The new century has brought with it a technological boom all over the world. New devices have been created, new forms of connecting people are now consider basic goods in most circles. Today, more and more people around the world rely on laptops, phones and tablets as an essential part of their everyday lives. For example, in only 10 years, more than 7 billion smartphones have been produced. And by 2020, smartphone subscriptions are expected to hit 6.1 billion, or roughly 70% of the global population.
Without a doubt, this kind of boom has only rarely been seen before. So, it’s hard to argue with the fact that new technological devices have changed the world and the way people see it. Millions and millions of devices are being produced every year. Nevertheless, there’s some important issues that are hardly mentioned or questioned. What happens to those electronic gadgets when they are being replaced for new or better ones?
That’s when e-waste enters into discussion. For example, according to what the United Nations University estimated in 2014, roughly 42 million tons of e-waste was generated despite the materials therein being worth an estimated $18.8 billion USD. Three million tons were generated only from small information technology, like smartphones. This year, e-waste volumes are predicted to rise globally to 48 million metric tons or more.
Today the electronics industry has decided to “design for the dump,” which means that new electronic devices are produced with the purpose of lasting less time and have spare parts that are hard or impossible access. They are made to become waste as quickly as possible, and thus restart the whole production and disposal chain. For example, a cell phone has a lifetime of less than 2 years, while in the case of a computer, it is less than 4 years.
So, what are we throwing away when we get rid of our smartphone or our laptop? Aluminum, cobalt, and gold are just a few of the more than 60 elements used to make advanced electronics, and they are obtained, mostly, from mining operations around the world. So, the rate at which people purchase and discard these devices is having a serious impact on our planet.
Greenpeace demanded Samsung take care of the disposal of 4.3 million smartphones. After almost 5 months of protests around the world, the company announced a recycling plan. In a statement, Samsung committed to refurbishing and selling the recalled phones or use them as rental phones, detach salvageable components, such as semiconductors and camera modules, for reuse or sale; and extract metals using “environmentally friendly methods.”
Everyday there is an increasing demand for greener, longer-lasting electronic devices, and the industry has shown progress is possible. Consumers are increasingly concerned about the social and environmental impacts of the products they buy. They want reliable, sustainably-made products that last. Ultimately, smartphone manufacturers need to embrace a slow, clean, closed-loop production model, powered by renewable energy. This means that companies should make products manufactured using recycled materials with zero use of finite virgin materials, in particular materials from mining.
When companies apply their know-how and innovative spirit, change can happen, from increasing the energy efficiency of our devices to progressively eliminating the hazardous substances contained in them.
In Latin America, e-waste regulations are in place in Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, and Ecuador. But in the absence of national strategies, most of them only operate at the local level. For example, the province of Buenos Aires has a local act (act n° 14,321). Such local laws stipulate that e-waste must be sent to an environmentally responsible destination when disposed of, and specific funding might be used to finance selective waste collection projects.
In Argentina, it’s estimated that 4 to 8 kilograms of electronic devices waste per person are produced every year, according to a United Nations report.
So, as we can see, this issue is not only international, it has also a big relevance in our country. We, at Greenpeace Argentina, have filed for a national electronic waste act to get proposed to both the former and current administrations, in order to protect the environment from the ravenous waste of electronic gadgets. We had our first shot in 2011, when the Senate gave particle approval to the WEEE bill. But unfortunately, the project lost its parliamentary status in 2012. Greenpeace accused the former government of not working on the project in the established timeline.
Greenpeace believes that manufacturers of electronic and electrical devices must take responsibility for their products to the end of their useful life. To prevent a crisis by the growth of electronic waste, manufacturers must design clean products with longer lifespan that are safe and easy to recycle and that do not expose workers and the environment to dangerous chemicals.
We need a law to promote the protection of the environment and the prevention from pollution generated by e-waste, seeking the reduction of the danger, found in the components and toxic substances of these devices.
The only way to reduce the environmental impact is to have the government’s commitment to treat this issue. We need to stop polluting our ecosystems, we need to stop throwing away gadgets that contain highly toxic elements. It’s important to take a quick and effective solution to this urgent matter.