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Waste Not
Step Change in Design, Recycling Efforts Essential for Addressing E-Waste

In today’s digitally dependent world, e-waste management is a critical issue that requires urgent attention from both the public and private sector.

In today’s digitally dependent world, e-waste management is a critical issue that requires urgent attention from both the public and private sector. Published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) — the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technology — together with the United Nations University (UNU) and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017 seeks to increase global awareness and draw attention to the growing problem of e-waste.

According to the assessment, 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste were generated in 2016 alone, up 3.3 million metric tons (8 percent) from 2014. Of this 44.7 million, only about 20 percent — or 8.9 million metric tons — of all e-waste was recycled. Four percent of 2016’s e-waste was thrown into landfills and the remaining 76 percent was incinerated, recycled in informal operations or stored in consumers’ households. On average, 13.4 pounds of e-waste was generated per person globally in 2016.

E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream and is expected to rise to 52.2 million metric tons by 2021, making improving recycling rates an imperative to mitigate environmental and human health risks.

In addition to highlighting the environmental and social risks related to increasing levels of e-waste and its improper and unsafe treatment and disposal, the report sheds light on legislation being put into place around the world to promote better management of discarded electronic products. Currently, 67 countries have adopted national e-waste management laws.

“With 53.6 percent of global households now having internet access, information and communications technologies are improving peoples’ lives and empowering them to enhance their social and economic well-being,” said Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.

The Global E-Waste Monitor represents an important step in identifying solutions for e-waste. Better e-waste data will help evaluate developments over time, set and assess targets and contribute to developing national policies. National e-waste policies will help minimize e-waste production, prevent illegal dumping and improper treatment of e-waste, promote recycling and create jobs in the refurbishment and recycling sector.”

The report also notes that low recycling rates prevent the recovery of valuable materials, such as gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, which can have a negative economic impact. It estimates that the value of recoverable materials contained in e-waste generated during 2016 was $55 billion, which is more than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries in the world. As demand for electronics grows and resources become scarce, as in the case of cobalt, failure to recycle e-waste and recover the materials for reuse could drive up the price of producing goods, the costs of which will most likely be passed down to consumers. Encouraging circularity, however, will help safeguard businesses against future price fluctuation and reduce the need for virgin materials.

“We live in a time of transition to a more digital world, where automation, sensors and artificial intelligence are transforming industry and society,” said Antonis Mavropoulos, president of ISWA. “E-waste is the most emblematic byproduct of this transition and finding the proper solutions for e-waste management is a measure of our ability to utilize technological advances to stimulate a sustainable future and to make the circular economy a reality. We need to be able to measure and collect data and statistics on e-waste, locally and globally, in a uniform way. This report represents a significant effort in the right direction and ISWA will continue to support it as a very important step towards the global response required.”

Earlier this year, ITU, UNU and ISWA teamed up to launch the Global Partnership for E-Waste Statistics. Its objective is to help countries produce e-waste statistics and to build a global e-waste database to track developments over time.

The partnership further aims to map recycling opportunities from e-waste, pollutants and e-waste related health effects, along with building national and regional capacities to help countries produce reliable and comparable e-waste statistics that can identify best practices of global e-waste management. The work will ultimately contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals 11.6 and 12.5 by monitoring relevant waste streams and tracking the ITU Connect 2020 target 3.2 on e-waste.

Meanwhile, Amsterdam-based design studio Formafantasma has created a series of office furniture made from discarded electronics as part of an installation for Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria to raise awareness around the impacts of e-waste and to present potential solutions. Dubbed Ore Streams, the installation also features documentary videos and photographs exploring the theme.

“Beyond systemic improvements, design can be used to seduce and elicit a less conscious attitudinal shift for the better. The collection of objects created for Ore Streams act as a Trojan horse, using form and color to initiate a deeper exploration of ‘above ground mining’ and the complex role design plays in transforming natural resources into desirable products,” Formafantasma said in a release.

The studio used a variety of components ranging from smartphone bodies to microwave shells to create the aforementioned suite of office furnishings, which includes a cubicle, table and lounge chair. While the project highlights the potential of post-consumer electronic products, it also sheds light on the barriers to circularity presented by current design approaches. For example, the different components used to fabricate each of the pieces are indistinguishable, speaking to the difficulty of separating materials during the recycling process as a result of glues and hazardous materials.

“By revealing the invisibility of material origins within contemporary products, Formafantasma reveal how designers, who define what materials will become, can fail to consider or to communicate the sources or potential afterlife of the products they create,” the National Gallery Victoria explains on its website.

This sentiment is one that has been championed by Fairphone, a manufacturer of ethically produced and modular electronics, and is slowly beginning to catch on within the electronics industry. In June 2017, Greenpeace released a new IT product guide ranking tech giants according to iFixit’s repairability score; and earlier this year Apple and Dell announced commitments to improving product recyclability and increasing the amount of recycled components in their products.