IT’s haste equals too much waste

The tech sector needs to admit it has an e-waste problem, says Billy MacInnes

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Billy

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5 August 2021 | 0

We love to talk about growth in the IT industry – and why wouldn’t we? For more years than any of us can remember, IT has enjoyed healthy increases in sales and profits. The great advantage IT has enjoyed as a new industry is that whenever one product or technology has started to wane, it has been replaced by something else that is considered more innovative and more exciting.

Whatever iteration we find ourselves in, IT is a fast-moving, rapidly growing, agile, revolutionary, leading edge, bleeding edge industry. We know this because IT keeps telling us this and people keep buying it.

But there is one area where IT is notably reticent to brag about its incredibly high growth rates, an area where it is uncharacteristically modest about drawing attention to its achievements: waste. Or e-waste as it is more accurately known. While this also includes household appliances such as fridges and TVs, the big growth area in recent years has been in IT with products such as laptops, PCs, monitors and smartphones.

 

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To be fair, suggesting that IT is being uncharacteristically modest about its contribution to e-waste is not entirely accurate. Many computer companies have quite a lot to say about their efforts to reduce carbon emissions and become carbon neutral – and more power to them for setting those targets. But they don’t operate in isolation and their products or services extend way beyond their own boundaries.

They have supply chains, their products are built with components from other manufacturers, they are shipped halfway across the world, the power they use in their daily operations add to their carbon footprint. Perhaps most importantly, despite the commitment to reuse and recycle, there does not appear to be a commensurate requirement to reduce production or manufacturing.

The e-waste problem isn’t going away. Understandably, it can be difficult to visualise the scale of the issue so UK online retailer of refurbished electronics and physical media, musciMagpie.co.uk, has produced a useful webpage that helps do that.

This is not the first time the company has used visuals to make its point. At the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, it unveiled Mount Recyclemore, a giant sculpture of G7 leaders’ heads constructed entirely from discarded electronics.

The good news from an Irish perspective is that we are 10th in the world when it comes to recycling our e-waste with just over 56% of the 92,640 tonnes we generated in 2019 (equivalent to the weight of 732 Dublin Spires) recycled. Our 18.2kg of e-waste per person annually is not too much above the European average of 16.2Kg per person. Top of the class is Estonia with a recycling rate of more than 75%.

By contrast, the US has a meagre recycling rate of 14.74% and China isn’t much better at 15.26%. Worse still, they produce the most e-waste globally – China generated 10.1 million tonnes of e-waste in 2019 and the US produced 6.9 million tonnes. That means China produced nearly 8.6 million tonnes of e-waste that was not recycled in 2019 and the US was responsible for 5.88 million tonnes of e-waste that was not recycled.

The truly worrying thing is the figures used by musicMagpie are from The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 based on e-waste generated in 2019. Sadly, the rate of e-waste has increased by 21% since 2015 and is on track for a 35% rise between 2021 and 2030.

And that assumes growth rates won’t outpace predictions which, when you consider that this is IT we’re talking about, is not an uncommon occurrence. For context, the Global E-waste Monitor 2017 report predicted worldwide e-waste would reach 52.2 million metric tonnes by 2021. It surpassed that figure in 2019, reaching 53.6 million metric tonnes.

Whatever steps are taken to mitigate the generation of e-waste, not enough is being done to reform how it is produced. This is not something IT, or any other industries for that matter, seem happy to countenance but at some point we will need to address it. In simple terms, if you want to reduce the waste that comes out at the end of the process, the best way to do that is to reduce what goes in at the beginning. If it’s true that you get out what you put in, the IT industry really needs to start thinking quite hard about what it puts in.


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