Circular Economy, Consumption

The Mirage of E-Waste Recycling

Admin | Mar 10, 2021

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This is an original article written by Gawain Pek.

There are many reasons to recycle electronic waste. Rare earth metals, integral to electronic parts, are dug up from the ground, leaving behind quarries. They contain harmful metals like cadmium and lead that can potentially pollute the environment and make their way up our food chains. 

Keeping them out of landfills would then seem wise – but the incineration of electronics releases tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air, thus exacerbating the climate issues we already face at hand. What then, could possibly go wrong with e-waste recycling?  As it turns out, e-waste recycling is only but a mirage that leads to the avoidance of the real issue – mass consumerism.

The Invisible Journey of E-waste

Guiyu, China. Source: Basel Action Network (Flickr)

To begin, the world now faces a confounding problem of transnational waste disposal. Many would often think of e-waste disposal as a straightforward process. After diligently depositing the e-waste into designated bins, they get trucked away to begin their new life. Yet, if we tagged along, we may find that our recycled trash takes a wild journey. As Basel Action Network found, our e-waste ends up in faraway places in someone else’s backyard. In reality, the e-waste hardly begins a new life, but piles up, waiting for local communities to pick them apart. Without regulation or the right technology, these communities engage in unsafe practices, exposing them to the toxic materials contained in e-waste

Informal Sector in Guiyu, China. Source: Basel Action Network (Flickr) 

The high costs of e-waste recycling explain why transnational disposal persists. The e-waste recycling industry can be categorised into two sectors – the formal and informal sectors. E-waste recycling, when done right, can indeed advance a circular economy, keeping rare piles of earth in circulation and the number of unsightly quarries in check. However, it is expensive to set up proper e-waste recycling systems. As such, it is cheaper to send e-waste away than to invest in these systems. 

The Mirage of Recycling

When e-waste accumulates in developing communities, they are often managed through informal means. The methods involve stripping electronics down to its parts with bare hands. At times, communities burn the waste to melt away the plastics and expose the precious metals. Others use acid, exposing themselves to harmful chemicals. Without regulation, all these expose local communities to the toxic materials found in electronics, threatening their public health.

Moreover, recycling can become a convenient excuse. As recycling redirects our focus to the endpoint of a product life-cycle, it is convenient for consumers to forget that resource consumption takes place at the start of every production chain. As recycling is promoted, even glorified at times, it encourages us to consume more than we actually need to, because we now have a “gold standard solution” to take care of all our waste problems. As a result, when consumption levels rise, production increases to meet increasing consumer demands.  During which, more resources are extracted to meet this increased production, depleting natural capital. The result is a bloating cycle of consumption, production and resource use. 

As researchers have found, recycling industries thrive on an expanding waste stream, locking in the norm of high consumption. Even as recycling technologies and infrastructure improve, any resource conservation gains made become eclipsed. In this way, recycling becomes a mirage.

Singapore’s E-waste Management Concept. Source: Towards Zero Waste SG 

Singapore is not absolved from the world’s e-waste woes. As a nation, we generate about 60,000 tonnes of e-waste a year, the biggest producer of waste in Southeast Asia. Though Singapore has a slate of initiatives and policies to improve our e-waste recycling infrastructure, there is still a long way to go. It is reported that only six percent of collected e-waste is recycled, while the rest are sent to the incinerators. Worst still, we, too, are complicit in the transnational disposal of e-waste.

Recycling may be one promising solution to e-waste, but it is definitely not the be-all, end-all. 

Ideas to Fix the System

Serious solutions to treat piling e-waste must take the entire product life cycle into consideration. Businesses must take the lead and design ‘sensible’, ‘more responsible’ products. Practices like “planned obsolescence” must be done away with. We ought to return to a product design culture where longevity is key and products are easily repairable

For consumers, the old adage “reduce, reuse, recycle” needs to be reconstrued. Wouldn’t it be better if we simply… reduced (our consumption) and reused (what we don’t have to buy)? Recycling, then, should be left as the last option. In other words, there needs to be a market-wide, re-evaluation of culture. 

As John Glaubitz suggests, consumers need to bear in mind the environmental impact of their own purchase decisions. Producers, on the other hand, need to rethink how they generate profits without manufacturing a new product once every other year.

Governments should incentivise the right behavior among people and businesses. Investing in proper e-waste recycling infrastructure will ensure that recycling is only deployed as the final tool on the belt to keep e-waste in check.

Realignment: Putting the Horse before the Cart

While the benefits of recycling are called into question, it is not to say it is without merits. Recycling can indeed provide the opportunity to recover scarce resources and keep pollutants at bay. However, this is only true if done right. If not, e-waste recycling will perpetuate the adverse effects of global inequality. More importantly, innovations in recycling technology and infrastructure must be matched with a decrease in consumption and production. Else, gains in these innovations will be eclipsed by expanding resource use, dulling their efficacy. To push for more recycling without challenging norms of consumption is to put the cart before the horse.

As producers and consumers, we cannot absolve ourselves from responsibilities. We must remember that recycling exists to begin with because our mass consumption tendencies are producing too much trash. To truly deal with the e-waste problem, consumers and businesses need to re-envision why we consume goods, how we consume these goods, and how we produce them.

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