By Irina Slav
They are among the biggest—and most generous—backers of the renewable energy shift. They are advertising themselves as environmentally responsible companies that source their raw materials from ethical locations and cutting the offering of products that consumers don’t use to reduce packaging-related emissions. And they are the driver behind a global electronic waste crisis. Meet Big Tech. Last year, Apple said its iPhone 12 will sell without a charging adapter, like the latest Apple Watches, to reduce the amount of electronic waste its products generate.
“There are also over 2 billion Apple power adapters out there in the world, and that’s not counting the billions of third-party adapters. We’re removing these items from the iPhone box, which reduces carbon emissions and avoids the mining and use of precious materials,” Wired quoted Apple’s VP of environment, policy, and social initiatives, Lisa Jackson.
Yet it’s not the chargers that are the big problem, according to e-waste experts. Last year, the world generated a record amount of e-waste, topping 53.6 million metric tons, E-Waste Monitor said in its latest report. This amount represented a 21-percent increase over five years. And e-waste will continue growing, the report warned. It could reach 74 million metric tons by 2030.
Recycling rates, meanwhile, are meager. Last year, they stood at less than 20 percent of the total e-waste the world generated. Unless something changes very quickly and radically, this rate is unlikely to change much in the future, either.
“We don’t have the technology to take a truck full of old iPhones, molt them down, grind them up and make new iPhones out of them. It’s flat out physically impossible,” the chief executive of repairs hub iFixit, Kyle Wiens, told CNBC’s Dain Evans recently.
“Smartphones and tablets are challenging,” according to John Shegerian, CEO of Electronic Recyclers International, who also spoke to CNBC’s Wiens. “Many of them are no longer made with screws; they’re made with glue. Glue makes things very hard to take apart and recover materials from because it degrades the value of the commodity product itself.”
People are increasingly reliant on smartphones and other consumer electronics, and they don’t last particularly long: the average productive life of a smartphone was about 24 months in 2018. This was becoming a problem for phonemakers: an average life of 24 months was two months longer than people used to keep their phones back in 2016, and this was hitting profits. Now, CNBC’s Wiens noted in his article on e-waste, smartphones’ lives are likely to start shrinking again as consumers shift to 5G devices.
A smartphone contains a host of precious metals and rare earths—not to mention the oil-sources plastic these metals and rare earths are encased in—and these have a substantial carbon footprint. Called invisible waste, the dirty trail of an average smartphone is about 86 kilos while that of a laptop is 1,200 kilos, according to Swedish waste management and recycling organization Avfall Sverige.
“Because the waste from manufacturing is not visible, consumers have trouble really understanding the full environmental impact the product has,” the organization noted in its report. “It must be easier for consumers to take responsibility for their purchases. The invisible waste must therefore be made visible and knowledge about it must increase so we can reduce the quantities of waste over time.”
Not everything is so gloomy, to be fair. A study published recently in the Journal of Industrial Ecology and cited by Yale Environment 360, reports that the amount of e-waste generated in the United States had fallen by 10 percent since 2015. However, this was not thanks to more responsible manufacturers or consumers but because of the replacement of bulky items such as CRT monitors with laptops and because of the multifunctionality of most devices.
The solution seems simple: Big Tech could simply start making more durable phones instead of launching a new model every 12 months. But this would be a problem for Big Tech’s profits, which apparently depend heavily on the regular and frequent release of new products, as suggested by the trends from the last five years mentioned above.
Throwing away smartphones without recycling them meant throwing away materials worth $57 billion, according to E-Waste Monitor, and the report noted this was a conservative estimate. In other words, recycling smartphones and other consumer electronics could ultimately save tens of billions of dollars on top of the savings in manufacturing-related emissions.
Even better, waste could be a resource, according to the author of the e-waste shrinkage study, Shahana Althaf, a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Center for Industrial Ecology. Recycling can recover most of the precious and rare metals used in smartphones and other devices, reducing reliance on imported raw materials, which some have seen as a threat to national security that needs to be handled soon.