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A global body monitoring electronic waste has warned that the total e-waste generated during 2019 at 53.6 metric tonnes, was the highest ever with growth rates being in the range of 20 to 21 percent over the past five years.
The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 released by the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership also goes on to predict that electronic waste generated from smartphones, computers and laptops could go up by at least 20 metric tonnes over the next 10 years as a result of higher consumption rates, shorter lifecycles and limited repair options.
The worst offenders over the past 12 months was Asia which generated 24.9 metric tonnes followed by the Americas with 13.1 metric tonnes and Europe with 12 metric tonnes. Africa and Oceania generated the least amount of e-waste with 2.9 metric tonnes and 0.7 metric tonnes respectively.
The report further said that only 17.4 percent of the total e-waste was officially documented as having been collected and recycled. In other words, iron, copper, gold and high-value materials that were recoverable and valued at a whopping $57 billion was dumped or burnt down instead of being collected, treated and reused.
And this where a business model is possibly waiting to be exploited. A recent report by the Royal Society of Chemistry had warned that supply of rare raw material used in making mobile phones, tablets and personal computers could be exhausted if older devices weren’t recycled. It said elements such as indium, yttrium or tantalum could run out within a century.
India is estimated to generate more than 5 million tonnes of e-waste by the end of 2020, according to estimates provided by industry body Assocham. And the only way recycling is being carried out is hazardous for those collecting the material, usually ragpickers.
The CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry Robert Parker says scientists are working to find solutions by investigating substitutes for rare elements in the devices or through new chemical methods to extract precious materials from old devices for reuse. He feels that while alternatives may still be some way off, there is scope for focusing on reusability.
Maybe smartphone makers could take the lead here. If they offer buy back schemes so that older devices are retrieved and the precious materials are extracted, it could work best for both the industry and the environment. Of course, the starting point for such a process would be to make users feel that their data is safely deleted and won’t be found and used by manufacturers.