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Rise of e-waste in Asia

The world is increasingly becoming tech savvy, entering the digital age and this is a phase where kids can operate tablets better than the adults. Moreover, from the early 2000s not only millennials are living an electronic life but the EEE (Electrical and Electronic Equipment) has become prerequisites for the survival of an average person.

But, what about the things that are discarded? Which ended their usage life or are still not thrown away? How these devices became a part of our lives, which, with constant iterative hardware updates, especially PCs and smartphones are being replaced in quick succession?

In 2014, 41.8 million metric tonnes of e-waste was generated globally, out of this, Asia produced the majority of 16 million metric tonnes. Furthermore, it is estimated that 49.8 million metric tonnes of e-waste will be generated in 2018 (source: Statista). Asia is the largest consumer and buyer of EEE. However, the waste generation on per capita basis amounts to mere 3.7 kg per inhabitant as compared to Europe and America, where e-waste generation is four times higher and amounts to 15.6 kg per person. China alone saw an increase in its e-waste generation to 6.7 million tonnes, an increase of 107% from 2010 to 2015. According to the UN methodologies, few regions have shown a rise in e-waste quantities which is outpacing population growth.

The reasons behind such a sharp rise in consumption, abandoning and replacement of the technological devices were:

  1. Innovation in technology – The quick obsolescence due to the introduction of new products, particularly portable devices such as smartphones.
  2. Rise in population and PDI – The countries in Asia are rapidly industrialising, leading to affordability and rising standards of living, which, in turn leads to increasing consumption.
  3. Ubiquitous use and availability – With a hoard of technology companies taking a lead globally, the adoption and availability have become very convenient for the consumers.

The above reasons were primarily responsible for the mass dumping of e-waste from rich to poor nations as there are no regulations to stop this practice. There are varied reasons for the growth in the different countries. The largest producer of e-waste is China with a 107% growth as stated above, it is due to its large and increasingly affluent population that demands the latest gadgets and appliances. However, in Hong Kong, the per capita e-waste was 21.7 kg (2015), which was higher than 19.13 kg of China. This was despite the population being 200 times lower than the mainland China. According to a UN report, 18% of the US waste is dumped in Hong Kong, this ultimately leads to the rise in per capita e-waste generation. Similarly, Singapore closely follows Hong Kong and generate 19 kg per capita waste owing to illegal dumping.

It is for low awareness and knowledge, unsafe practices are carried out in the disposal of e-waste. In addition, because of weak legislations, there is a rampant noncompliance on the environment friendly management of e-waste, this leads to health hazards. The non-environment friendly practices such as open burning, backyard acid baths, informal recycling affect community health at large. However, few electronic manufacturers in the EEE industry such as mobile phones, personal computers or household appliances are fulfilling their ‘individual producer responsibility’ by collating the e-waste as part of their sustainability measures. They are retrieving the products, which have outlived their lives to either recycle or reuse them in one way or the other. This not only helps the companies fulfil their corporate social responsibility towards the environment, but also helps in cost savings. For instance, 1 million mobile phones can recover 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium and more than 20,000 pounds of copper. The following table shows the quantity of e-waste recycled by the top 3 electronics companies involving the production of computers, mobiles and other electronic appliances from 2011-15 in tonnes. Likewise, they are also attempting to lessen the toxicity of materials used in their products to reduce their e-waste footprints globally.

On the other hand, there is a newer form of recycling and disposition industry that is developing with different business models being harnessed. It is a very niche industry with limited operating players, but as millions of tonnes are being poured into EEE recycling, the secondary IT goods market is estimated to reach 300 billion USD. Few such models are:

ecoATM, where a kiosk collects used cell phones, tablets and MP3 players and pays the seller after evaluating the condition. The waste collected is either sold in the secondary market or recycled based on the price. ‘The giving green machine’ pays instant cash in exchange for old cell phones/tablets/MP3 players, etc. helping consumers to take an active part in a healthy disposal.

HYLA Mobile (formerly eRecyclingCorps) is another mobile recycler which cumulatively transacted trade of 42 million devices and generated transaction value of 3 billion USD.  HYLA Mobile operates in seven countries and partners with leading carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and Orange across a network of more than 16,000 retail locations to provide instant, in-store trade-in credit for used mobile devices. It follows a model of collecting idle phones and give these to the organisations for reuse.

Optoro started its end to end reverse logistics solutions, this helps retailers process, manage and sell returned and excess inventory. This new venture is adding another level to the supply chain management that helps in product dispositions rather than ending it up in the landfills each year.

Sims Recycling Solutions runs 50 sites around the world for electronics recycling, asset recovery and data destruction services. This is reinforcing overall sustainable business model and closed loop approach to responsible electronic recycling.

The above responses portray a very positive but rather unrealistic handling picture for the vast heaps of e-wastes around the world. The high disposal rates for electronic goods will ultimately lead to increased sales and shipments to manufacturers though this cannot be quantified. Additionally, unless there is a fixation of responsibility on the producers and strict regulations on disposal, there cannot be any halt to the rising levels of the e-waste. The green companies can only remove a portion of the overall outdated global electronic goods through their initiatives.

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