A Tower of Cable Waste, How E-Waste Can Affect The Environment

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A few weeks ago, we talked about how production and consumption were contributing to the global climate change crisis. We also discussed how we need to do better and take action with some simple tips to avoid food and clothing waste. 

This time we want to look into the negative impact electronic waste can have on the environment. But, what is electronic waste? 

Electronic Waste

E-waste (electronic waste) includes plugs, cords, and electronic components - such as televisions, computers, mobile phones, and any home appliance- from air conditioners to children's toys. 

Look around where you are right now. How many of these can you see? Do you have a 'cable' drawer at home? A drawer full of all types of cables and cords? If you do, you are not alone. We accumulate electronics as we upgrade for new ones and often end up with a bunch of cables, cords, old phones, and tablets. 

According to the UN 2022 Sustainable Goal indicators, Latin America and the Caribbean only responsibly collect 1.2% of their electronic waste. And in 2019 alone, the world generated a striking 53.6 Mt of e-waste, an average of 7.3 kg per capita, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020. The constant need to obtain the newest technology, the latest phone, and the latest tablet will eventually bury us in e-waste unless we make drastic changes. 

Why is e-waste a problem?

When broken or unwanted electronics end up in landfill, toxic substances like lead and mercury can leak into soil and water. They also take longer to decompose than biomaterials and can clutter our living spaces. 

Additionally contain valuable non-renewable resources, like gold, silver, copper, platinum, aluminum, and cobalt - This means when we dispose of e-waste without proper recycling, we throw away precious materials. However, even recycling is not 100% efficient at the moment. Processes are slow and inefficient, and nations are opting to get rid of the problem by exporting the waste to countries where labor laws don't protect those doing the meticulous and dangerous work of processing e-waste for metal and mineral extraction.

Sadly, e-waste is often sent to China, Africa, or India, where entire villages, including children, sort components. It is not ethical. It is not enough, and also it is not a long-term solution. 

E-waste management is a massive global issue, and it's closely related to more than one UN Sustainable Goal (SDG). 

SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth

SDG 3 on good health and well-being

SDG 6 on clean waste and sanitation

SDG 14 on life below water

Given the high raw material demand for the production of electronics, e-waste also closely relates to the SDG indicators on the material footprint (SDGs 8.4.1 and 12.1.1) and the SDGs on the domestic material consumption (SDGs 8.4.2 and 12.2.2) 

E-waste starts at the point of consumption which makes us, consumers, highly responsible. 

The Solution: 

The solution may not be the solution yet. First, countries must step up and find an ethical and sustainable way to deal with all the e-waste we produce. Until then, however, you can do a few things at home. 

  1. Postpone upgrading your gadgets for as long as you can. We know it is hard. As soon as the newest smartphone comes out, we want it. However, think twice about getting your phone or other devices upgraded. Ask yourself, do you really need a new device? 
  2. Find opportunities for reuse. If the item is still in good working condition or it requires only minor repairs, think about giving it to someone else. If friends or family don't want it, several charities will take them and get value from old items, especially mobile phones and tablets, which other kids can use for learning. 
  3. Try returning the item to the manufacturer. Some manufacturers like Apple can take back the discarded product. Apple's trade-in program will even give you money back toward a new product if you recycle your apple products. 
  4. Find a dedicated e-waste recycling facility. Some places will take old electronics and recycle them - you can easily search for one in your area at Recycle Now. However, please research the facility's recycling process and ensure that they aren't simply sending everything to developing countries. 
  5. Use, reuse, upcycle. Sometimes we can use old electronic products to make something new. Upcycle and turn it into a piece of art or something you can use at home or school. However, please make sure you get adult supervision as some parts can be dangerous to handle and require extra care. 

People doing cool things: 

Project COCoDRILE is the first of a kind commercial Compact system for the efficient Recovery of O1 CObalt. In other words, they are recycling cobalt from cities. Yes, from cities! From old batteries mostly. 

The project's goal is that once metals are mined, they go back into the production cycle for the next device that needs them and are recycled and reused instead of ending up in landfill - This contributes to a circular economy. It also means the more cobalt can be recovered by recycling, the more we can reduce the need for freshly mined materials from Africa. 

Watch the video to learn more! 


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Thinking Cap On

E-Survey. Make a table and count how many electronic devices do you have at home? Include all TVs, laptops, tablets, cell phones, microwaves, and anything with a cable. 

How many of these have been upgraded over the last two years? And why were they upgraded? 

What happened with the old devices? Recycled, given to a family member, sold? Based on this survey, can you estimate how many different devices your family will use in the next ten years? Discuss with your family if there are any ways you can reuse, recycle or upcycle any of these devices.