One of the biggest challenges in modern waste management is the question of how to safely and effectively manage electronic waste (e-waste). Given the rapid pace at which technology is advancing, electronic devices of all kinds are becoming obsolete faster than ever and heading to landfills and recycling centers in steadily increasing numbers. Meanwhile, the e-waste management industry is fighting hard to keep up. Read on for a closer look at some of the key obstacles the industry is confronting.
E-waste management and recycling techniques have naturally evolved over the years to deal more effectively with the modern materials found in electronic products today, but one surprising consequence of this has been a diminishing capacity to handle older materials.
For example, many e-waste recycling programs are currently receiving great numbers of old tube-style monitors and televisions that contain cathode ray tubes (CRTs). These devices require specialized handling due to their lead content, but because they haven’t been sold in the US for many years, there are fewer options available today for turning old CRT glass into new CRT glass. This means that proper disposal and recycling of these materials is more costly and less convenient for the industry, which could in turn make it less likely that these materials will be handled correctly.
Short product lifecycle
Most modern electronic devices—particularly mobile phones—have an extremely short life cycle: typically just two to five years. Compare that with the average vehicle, whose life cycle is usually at least 10 to 12 years long. This means that these items are turning over at an extremely fast rate, flooding recycling centers with high volumes of products needing attention. It also means that the devices themselves are changing so quickly that each new “generation” requires an ever-more sophisticated skill set in order to test, refurbish, or repair newer devices. Furthermore, as products get more complex and smaller, it becomes more challenging to extract their valuable components and to properly recycle these elements.
Lack of consumer awareness
The question of consumer education is another major challenge facing e-waste management. Unfortunately, the level of awareness most consumers have about e- waste is very low. People often have little or no idea about critical issues like what hazardous materials their devices might contain, and what the proper methods are for disposing or recycling them. Furthermore, most consumers don’t realize that it’s important to recycle electronics promptly, because the longer they hold onto an older device, the harder it becomes to recycle or repurpose it, as described above.
Need for retailer support
E-waste management and recycling support from electronics retailers could go a long way in boosting consumer awareness and ensuring that e-waste products make it to the appropriate disposal location. Some major retailers already offer e-waste recycling programs—some are free, while others charge a small fine—but more retailers need to step up to help make such programs more widely available. Ultimately, the goal of the e- waste management industry is to make recycling of e-waste products as convenient for consumers as purchasing the items was in the first place.
Lack of appropriate legislation
To ensure that e-waste management and recycling is handled safely and correctly all across the US, it’s vital to have comprehensive legislation on the federal level. Right now, the lack of such legislation is making the job of e-waste recyclers very difficult. At the state level, only 25 states currently have some form of legislation about e-waste.
While this is a step in the right direction, its efficacy is hindered by the fact that these state regulations can be inconsistent, with each one focusing on different aspects of e-waste products and recycling requirements. This makes proper e-waste management and recycling difficult to enforce consistently, and even results in situations where consumers or recyclers take e-waste across borders to take advantage of a neighboring state’s lack of legislation.
Need for innovations
The e-waste management industry as a whole needs to make a long-term investment in technologies to make the e-waste recycling process more efficient. Rather than simply playing catch-up as electronics become more complex and difficult to recycle, the industry needs to work towards new innovations for processing e-waste items and extracting valuable components and critical materials from them. One example that holds promise is a recycling robot developed by Apple. Nicknamed “Liam,” the custom- designed R&D experimental robot dismantles iPhones at a rate of one device every 11 seconds and sorts the components for recycling.