Refurbished tech, to manage e-waste

Mobile phones, computer monitors, motherboards, television sets, refrigerators, chargers and other electronic equipment eventually end up as e-waste. Globally, over 45 million tonnes of e-waste is generated every year, and this is expected to grow to 52.2 million tonnes in two years. India is among the five biggest producers of e-waste. Disposing e-waste safely can be challenging as such waste contains minerals, metals, plastics and chemical additives. The environmental cost of manufacturing electronic products cannot be mitigated by recycling alone.

The most important reason recycling is an ineffective way to manage e-waste is that, at the most, only 5% of such waste is recycled. Over 95% of e-waste in India finds its way to scrap dealers who, with little regard for the environment or safety of workers, extract the most valuable components from such waste.

Hundreds of millions in India use electronic products. Because India is a relatively poor country, many households resell electronic equipment they no longer need. However, eventually, it is more profitable to extract the minerals, metals and plastics in them. The process by which materials are extracted from e-waste is harmful to those involved in the extraction and to the environment.

In India and other parts of the world, gold is recovered from circuit boards by bathing boards in hydrochloric and nitric acid. This poisons water bodies, many of which supply water to our homes. Residual waste, including chemicals, is often dumped improperly in the ground, leading to ecological harm. Those who extract valuable minerals from e-waste are exposed to noxious fumes that are extremely hazardous to health.

There is an urgent need to refurbish e-waste. Refurbishing e-waste is the only responsible way to dispose of such waste. In its environmental responsibility report, a leading manufacturer of smartphones admitted that 77% of the carbon footprint generated by its phones occurs during their manufacture. The carbon footprint generated during the use of the company’s phones was a mere 17%.

Hence, even when e-waste is recycled, its manufacturing will still be responsible for generating the majority of its carbon footprint. This is why refurbishing e-waste is ecologically wise -- it allows manufactured components to be reused, lowering significantly the carbon footprint during the manufacturing process.

The volume of e-waste is growing at 4% every year as electronics manufacturers continue to introduce new products. Without a drastic change in how e-waste is handled, it will continue to be disposed of in a manner that is harmful to the environment and human beings. If similar trends persist, the vastly greater quantities of e-waste generated in the future will lead to increased ecological damage and harm many more who handle such waste.

All refurbished products are verified to be in working order. The crucial difference between recycling and refurbishing is that in the former, materials are extracted and reused, while in the latter, components in working condition are reused in new products.

Hence, refurbishing is better for the environment because even effective recycling processes produce some waste. Because many materials cannot be recycled indefinitely, eventually much e-waste becomes completely useless to recyclers. Refurbishing, on the other hand, is effective because working components can be reused in new products almost indefinitely.   

An advantage of refurbishing e-waste is that older components can take the place of new ones without compromising the quality of newly manufactured electronics. Consumers in love with technology won’t notice any difference in quality when they buy a refurbished electronic product. For refurbishing to work, those who recycle must buy back electronics while manufacturers must use second-generation products to manufacture new electronics.

The manufacture of electronics is responsible for significant harm to the environment. For this reason, e-waste which contains already manufactured electronic components must be used to manufacture new electronics. The demand for electronics across India will continue to grow. Indian consumers want feature-loaded smartphones, TVs, cameras, laptops and much more. While manufacturing such products using newly manufactured components may have been feasible when demand was low, in an increasingly consumer-driven society, there is a need to manage resources better.

It’s impossible to eliminate the planned obsolescence by which most electronics are manufactured. Even in relatively poorer countries, a significant number of smartphone users replace their phone every year, leading to the creation of ever more e-waste. Globally, an average consumer replaces his or her phone every two years. Hence the demand for electronics will continue to grow, and in markets like India, which have a huge aspirational class, demand will grow at an accelerating pace.

Today, nearly 300 million Indians use smartphones while globally 2.7 billion use them. Demand for smartphones and other electronics in India will grow fast in the decades ahead as living standards rise. This is cause for concern as millions of tonnes of e-waste will be generated every year. The only realistic solution to the challenge posed by e-waste is using refurbished electronics. 

(The writer is CEO, Deshwal Waste Management Pvt Ltd)

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