Minimizing E-Wastes by Embracing a Circular Economy

Published on 15 May 2019

Shrinking polar ice caps, rising temperatures and severe weather conditions are making people think about how to live sustainably in these challenging times.  Technology has not only come to the rescue, but also has made modern living so much easier, convenient and faster.  Cell phones have replaced many everyday items like calendar, camera, torch, diary, dictionary, pen, atlas, wristwatch, and alarm clock, to name a few.  The use of digital devices has even help cut down transport emissions.  Nomadic Mongolians, who live in the most harshest environment on earth, rely on just three basic necessities, namely a motorcycle, a solar panel, and a cell phone.  These three possessions help them lead a sustainable life.  In a recent survey in India, it was found that 70% of the women used their smartphone as an efficient parenting tool!

The benefits of these digital devices are manifold, especially evident in the field of education, healthcare, logistics, e-commerce, and bridging the urban-rural divide.  As a result of which their popularity has surged worldwide, penetrating even the remotest villages in India and obscure towns in Africa, where it is being used as a weapon against poverty.  People from all walks of life have discovered the perks of this new-found digital world too good to be true.  There is even an accredited online university called the University of the People, which provides free education to the refugees, genocide survivors, homeless people, and stay-at-home moms.

By now, everyone has waxed eloquent about the oft-repeated mantra “with freedom, comes responsibility.”  According to a recent study by the UK-based manufacturer, Viessmann,  it was found that using a cell phone for one hour a day for one year creates 1.25 tonnes of CO2.  This is more than the CO2 emitted while travelling twice by air from London to Glasgow!  The servers and data centres emit CO2 whenever a smartphone is used for texting, searching, and accessing maps and apps.  As for e-wastes, it is not a new phenomenon.  No other technological advance can match that of the digital technology and its rapid growth in such a short span of time.  There are 1.4 billion cell phones produced every year.  Most modern urban households have more than one cell phone.  

Mindless consumption has spawned an electronic waste apocalypse. Landfills piled up with such e-wastes can damage the environment.  The toxins from the landfills can pollute the groundwater as well as the atmosphere.  There are several eco-friendly ways to discard e-wastes and there is a proper disposal protocol for every personal device.  An average mobile phone has a lifecycle of 3 to 3.5 years.  When your “old” smartphone of seven months has been replaced by the latest upgrade, instead of tossing it in the bin, it can be recycled, refurbished and redistributed to poor communities.  At this juncture, people must seriously ponder about a circular economy, where they are able to create and consume products which are recyclable, reusable, repairable, and renewable.

A Chinese artist, Shen Bolun, recently unveiled a sculpture called “Tongtian” in a shopping mall in Beijing.  According the artist, his inspiration came from the Tower of Babel in the Bible.  The sculpture was made of discarded cell phones and was shaped like a cell phone tower.  Through his art installation, he wanted to highlight the problem of e-wastes due to modern conspicuous consumption, symbols of expendable wealth, and accumulating in the landfills as remnants of capitalism!  Environmental group, Greenpeace, states that China’s electronic waste will reach 15.4 million tonnes by 2020.  The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games’ medal will be crafted from the metal of defunct cell phones, which is an excellent way to recycle e-wastes and produce something of great value!  Modern electronics evolve from mines, refineries, and assembly facilities scattered across the globe from South America, Asia, Scandinavia, Europe to Canada.

A rather an interesting experiment was carried out recently by a group of scientists from the University of Plymouth in Britain.  They put a cell phone into a blender!  They powdered it and did a chemical analysis to find out what elements make up a cell phone.  They found that it contained 33g of iron, 13g of silicon and 7g of chromium.  There were also rare or critical elements (mined from the conflict zones around the world) like 900mg of tungsten, 70mg of cobalt and molybdenum, 160mg of neodymium and 30mg of praseodymium.  And last but not the least, 90mg of silver and 36mg of gold!  “It also demonstrates that to create a single cell phone, it was required to mine 10-15kg of ore, which included 7kg of high-grade gold ore, 1kg of typical copper ore, 750g of typical tungsten ore, and 200g of typical nickel ore.” Extracting high-grade ores takes a toll on the earth.  Alongside tin and tantalum, the peripherals of personal devices are also made of plastic.  These materials are shipped from India, Peru, Mexico, Vietnam, South Africa, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia to factories in China.  Blue-collar low-wage workers refine and assemble the end-products, which the rest of the world uses.

Expensive lithium-ion batteries power everything from cars to our cell phones.  Lithium is mined in a handful of countries and it’s demand is expected to explode 1500-fold by 2030.  They are inflammable as these batteries ferry their ions in liquid through their core.  There have been a few rare instances where the cells phones have burst into flames. To overcome this problem, researchers have developed cheaper and durable energy storage devices in the form solid-state sodium batteries, which can power solar and wind farms as well as tiny wearable devices.  They are flexible, nonflammable, and can be charged 100 times over.

Protein-based sensors that can detect lanthanides, rare earth metals, used in smartphones, have also been developed.  Some of these metals include dysprosium, terbium, gadolinium, and lanthanum which are found in the electronic components of smartphones.  It should be noted that these are further re-purposed in making components for cars and aeroplanes.  Rare earth metals are mostly found in China and Australia and the conflict metals in many regions of Africa.  On the positive side, the electronic manufacturers can extract these metals from the samples retrieved from the environment or industrial effluents using such sensors.

There are many barriers to lauching e-waste recycling and reduction campaigns, as many people are unfamiliar with the procedure while some have privacy concerns about strangers handling their personal devices.  Before disposing off the device, all contents must be backed up and a factory reset must be performed.  Different types of batteries must be recycled in different ways.  Retailers must provide drop-off spots and awareness must be created among consumers about the importance of recycling.  There are online startups for refurbished second-hand cell phones and laptops, as well as offline kiosks.  Since the time span to buy a new phone has been drastically reduced, such ventures are paving the way for purchasing second-hand phones.  Besides general public, food delivery companies and cab aggregators are the main beneficiaries.

When a car, refrigerator, television or a washing machine is meant to be long-lasting, why is the same principle not followed for a smartphone?  No one even entertains the idea of using a cell phone forever! Upgrades and replacements are the norm.  They have become statement pieces to demonstrate disposable income. People should realize that there is a human cost to it and it is the culmination of international labor from unprotected workers toiling for unlivable wages.  Now that the personal gadgets have become so indispensable, it is time the technology giants made cell phones long-lasting, repairable and durable.  So that it decreases mining for minerals from conflict-prone zones of the world.  The industry should be graded on sustainability, and consumers should only support green tech companies, which source materials ethically, avoids child labor, protects workers and supports their well-being.  Consumers also need to realize that the digital devices they upgrade, ever so often, contain large amounts of rare metals that have economic value.  It is time for people to be more socially responsible, be conscientious consumers, keep addiction to digtial devices at bay, and support a circular economy.  If we get rid of all the excesses in our life, we can concentrate easily on what is more important and be more productive.  Reducing possessions and leading a simple minimalistic lifestyle can make one more self-sufficient – a best survival strategy in this VUCCA (volatile, uncertain, chaotic, complex, ambiguous!) world.

Further Reading

This Is How Shifting To A Circular Economy Could Improve Our World (2 September 2021)

Visualizing the Critical Metals in a Smartphone (24 August 2021)

Picasso’s favorite pigment may one day recycle metals from your cell phone (21 June 2022)

Vodafone’s One for One Program Will Bring Old Phones Back to Life (21 June 2022)

E-waste management: Nokia sets example (31 July 2013)

Greenpeace Rates “Green Electronics;” Nokia and Samsung Stand Out (16 September 2008)

The French Government Will Chip in for the Cost of Repairing Appliances (24 November 2022)

Last updated on 26 November 2022

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