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There’s no end in sight to the rise of e-waste

| March 6, 2014

In 2011, the world produced 41.5 million tons of e-waste. While you’re still wrapping your head around that astronomical number, let me drop another one on you. By 2016, it is estimated that the global volume of e-waste will weigh in at more than double that figure.

The projection for 2016 is an astounding 93.5 million tons of e-waste. And by “e-waste,” we’re not talking about the documents you drag to the trash bin on your desktop. This is real, tangible waste, in the form of discarded electronics and electrical devices and components.

From Takao K.

E-waste is a growing problem for developing countries. From Takao K.

That increase represents a compound annual growth rate of 17.6 percent. How can the amount of e-waste soar by such an astronomical percentage in just five years? It’s a combination of evolving technology, increasing global demand, and short attention spans. We all know that the “shiny new product” loses its luster very quickly when something else comes along.

The impact is real, but it’s not necessarily categorically negative. There are two sides to this issue. On one hand, you have the financial upside that comes with increased e-waste. The Environmental Leader reports that, “the revenue generated from the e-waste management market is expected to grow from $9.15 billion in 2011 to $20.25 billion in 2016 at a rate of 17.22 percent.” That growth translates to job creation as more and more people are needed in the e-waste management industry.

On the other hand, e-waste poses a potent environmental threat — especially if it’s not handled properly. As the Environmental Protection Agency reports, “some of the constituents [of e-waste], such as lead, nickel, cadmium, and mercury, could pose risks to human health or the environment if mismanaged at their end-of-life.”

The EPA also reports that only 25 percent of TVs, computer products, and cell phones that were at an “end of life” stage were actually collected for recycling. The rest ended up in the waste stream. This clogs up landfills at best, and at worst, presents the possibility of dangerous chemicals leaching into the ground.

It’s important to note that a product at the “end of life” stage isn’t the same thing as e-waste. Just because an electronic product is no longer in use doesn’t mean its job is finished. Many electronic components can be marketed as-is to a new consumer, refurbished and sold, or recycled for materials recovery.

While there aren’t reliable numbers available detailing export statistics for e-waste, it’s generally acknowledged that a lot of e-waste produced in the U.S. and the U.K. ends up in developing countries. That’s positive in the sense that it contributes to job creation and alleviation of poverty, but, as the Environmental Leader article points out, a lot of those exported products create more of a problem than a solution: “Without safe recycling facilities widely available, developing countries such India, China, and countries in Africa are facing the heat of the e-waste being illegally dumped in these countries from the developed countries such as the U.S. and U.K.”

With figures such as the 2016 e-waste projections being widely reported, awareness is on the rise. Here’s hoping positive solutions will soon follow.

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Category: Electronics

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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