Question: How many electronic devices do you and your family have in your house? Two? Three? Five? Eight?
When you stop to add up all of the possible devices—phones, tablets, computers, TV, wireless speakers, printers, modems—one thing becomes clear. No matter the actual number in your home, technology is everywhere and exists in many forms.
This fact leads to a major issue regarding technology today: electronic waste.
Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to electronic devices that are thrown away by their owners. This is a quickly growing problem.
Electronics contain all sorts of toxins in their batteries and circuit boards. Mercury, arsenic, and lead are just some of the materials inside that can pollute our air, water, and soil if not properly disposed of. So when that old tablet is chucked in the trash, a lot of bad stuff can leak into our environment.
In addition, many of the important materials in electronics are rare. And getting them costs more than money! Cobalt is necessary for the lithium-ion batteries found in smartphones and computers. A huge percentage of the world’s cobalt comes from mines in the African nation Congo. The miners there work under terrible conditions for very little money.
Whether we’re talking about pollution or human rights, there are big issues around modern technology. That’s why it’s a major concern that we’re not only making more tech than ever before—we’re throwing out more of it, too.
Throw it all away
If you ask your parents—never mind your grandparents—what technology was like when they were your age, you’ll probably hear stories of telephones with cords, televisions with only seven channels, listening to music on battery-powered cassette players, and so on.
But one detail that might not get mentioned right away? How long families held on to those devices.
Devices like TVs, stereos, phones, and alarm clocks were used for years and years. Even if they broke, plenty of repair shops existed to fix them. Modern electronic devices, however, are replaced often. Like, a lot. For example, it’s very common for people to replace their phone after only two years of use. (Yikes!)
Phrase of the day
“Built-in obsolescence.” (Say: ahb-so-LIH-sens.) Okay, as a phrase, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But this idea is an important one to be aware of in today’s world.
When something is obsolete, it is no longer useful. Built-in obsolescence is when a company uses certain tricks to encourage, pressure, or even force consumers to upgrade their devices with new ones. These tactics include…
- Newer models: tempting people by releasing “new and improved” versions of popular devices every year or so
- Cheap to buy, expensive to repair/supply: while the device itself is cheap, repairing/buying new supplies for it is so expensive that people just buy a new one to “save money”
- No more updates: most devices use regularly updated apps and operating systems. Companies can refuse to update these programs (such as Facebook) for older devices. Consumers have to buy a new device to continue to enjoy those apps.
In the end, built-in obsolescence means two things. One, even if you take really, really, really great care of a device, there’s sometimes a short limit to how long it’s still going to be useful to you. And two, most people are getting rid of their electronic devices after only a few years.
As we mentioned earlier, the biggest issue with throwing away electronics is what happens with the toxic material inside them.
Thankfully, more and more places are taking this issue seriously. Locations for donations or recycling of used electronics can be found in both large retail chains like Best Buy and Staples, and in various municipal (city) waste management programs. From Vancouver to Winnipeg to Ottawa, cities have special locations where citizens can drop off their old electronics for proper recycling. A few, such as Toronto, will even pick them up along with other waste at the curb (properly separated, of course!).
In fact, studies show that in Canada in 2012, these programs recycled about 4.7 million tonnes of e-waste. That’s about the weight of 26,000 blue whales! And it’s also almost twice as much as was recycled 10 years earlier in 2002.
But if that’s true, then why is this still an issue?
Changing culture takes time
We still throw out far more than we recycle. So while 4.7 million tonnes of Canadian electronic waste was properly recycled, around 9 million tonnes just went straight into the trash. And that was in 2012. Five years later, experts expect the number to be higher still.
The answer? Here are a few things that could help.
- Better programs: Old electronics contain lots of valuable materials—from gold to titanium and more! But removing them takes time. If governments create better recycling programs with more workers, they can handle more e-waste.
- Companies take charge: From recycling plants to training repair people, companies have a chance to both make their electronics more sustainable and create jobs at the same time.
- Buying less: Hey, you knew this one was coming! No one is expecting people to do without smartphones and computers. They are as important now as a pencil and paper was 40 years ago. But taking care of the devices you do have, holding off on replacing them, and considering second-hand options when you do get a new device can all go a long way.
How do you plan on being a responsible user of technology in the future? Let us know!