E-waste and digital transformation: what’s in it for us?

Buying a computer or a smartphone is now being influenced by the recycling policy of its manufacturer. Now customers are taking their environmental impact seriously. Have you read or at least wondered about your favorite brand’s policy? If not, you are not alone. Most of the buyers from big tech companies don’t pay attention to it, and even when that’s changing, much more is needed if we intend to make a meaningful impact now that we have entered the era of digital transformation.

Can e-waste shrink while digital transformation accelerates and grows?

As Tatiana Andronache said in an article published by ITWorld Canada, digital transformation means that anything – any old or new process, service or product that can go digital, is digitized already or will soon be. While digital transformation is a bright facet of technological progress today, e-waste remains its dark one. If a definition of e-waste is still needed, here is one from globalwaste.org: “all items of electrical and electronic equipment and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use”. 

But E-waste case is particular because it’s generated by both enterprises and individuals. Digital transformation is the same; not only enterprises are undergoing digital transformation, but also individuals. As we lay hands on more electronics, e-waste is continuously growing. Personal behaviors and beliefs can shape demand and markets, and our digital transformation must include fighting e-waste as part of progress.

World wide waste

Efforts to address e-waste started as early as 1989 with the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. E-waste contains toxic materials and useful ones that can be recovered through a diverse variety of processes. But Andronache states that too many times both toxic and useful ones ended up being dumped or burned in jurisdictions with lax environmental regulations. Many countries have now adopted legislation and policies to prevent these practices. There are international bodies that measure, monitor and advise on e-waste. At an enterprise level, there are preoccupations with cradle-to-grave-care for electronics and with environmentally sound management. Local initiatives have sprung up at grass root level to raise awareness and curb e-waste, businesses have been created to tackle the issue and recycling facilities have been built. Yet the upwards e-waste trend has not stopped.

In 2019 alone, according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, the world generated a striking 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste. The same report foresees 74 million Mt of e-waste globally for 2030. Of that amount, less than 20 per cent is currently collected and recycled. While it may be hard to fathom what this looks like, it is easier to relate to the average amount of electronic junk for each person on the planet: 7.3 kg. There are big differences by geographical area, yet these staggering numbers are growing everywhere. 

The great disconnect

One of the issues that have an impact on consumer’s behavior is that they are not bombarded with statistics, numbers and stories as much as companies expose them with incentives to buy the latest model of everything. Advertise campaigns are not including how recyclable a new computer, appliance, or electrical a vehicle is. Cradle-to-grave-care for electronics is not front of mind in marketing – and markets have yet to reward this type of effort. A ubiquitous shift in corporate practices of design, production, and marketing of electronics and appliances has not happened yet despite being needed. The reuse-repair-recycle virtues of a laptop are not showcased or advertised as are the speed of the CPU or the size of the storage and other, less consequential, parameters. 

Planned obsolescence is still largely practiced, and there are unnecessary or marginal improvements that cut short the useful life of perfectly well functioning electronics. And so the pile of discarded ones is ever-growing.

Personal digital transformation to the rescue?

It may be easier to attack e-waste and shape digital transformation from the personal digital transformation angle. The individual consumer is a drop in the ocean, and a drop does not count, yet the ocean is the sum of its drops. Can someone move with the technological times while becoming an e-waste warrior? 

Many individual consumers still don’t know what to do with a computer, printer, or cell phone they have replaced out of necessity or habit. I may not be the only one with a big box of videotapes, diskettes, and unwanted CDs in the closet – I am told these are still not accepted for recycling, and I’d rather not have them in the dumpster. I have not yet found a way to repurpose them. Repurposing old electronics is one personal digital transformation strategy to consider: maximize lifespan!

As individuals we can contribute immensely to addressing the e-waste problem in the age of digital transformation by changing our mentality and actions. The primary strategy is asking ourselves (as well as retailers and manufacturers) this one question: if I buy this new shiny thing today, how do I recycle, repurpose or discard?

It is important to start looking for solutions to meet the upcoming challenges ahead. That is why at eSmart we have been working on recycling computers that can have a longer useful life in the hands of children and families who need them. Our commitment goes hand in hand with a sustainable future, both socially and environmentally.

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