Almost every major franchise has pointed to its move away from the usage of paper and move towards recycling or going green in an attempt to reduce the amount of environmental damage caused by frivolously using paper. And while the world’s paper waste is somewhat improving, that doesn’t seem to be the case for disposal of our electronics. According to a study by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union, e-waste is equally if not more problematic than paper waste, and needs to be tended to.

Arguably, as technology advances, new electronics are becoming more compact and fragile, generally implying a shorter life span. This, coupled with the commodification of technology and consumerist culture, means that the turnover for electronics today is higher than ever before. What is known as “e-waste” or electronic waste is the disposal or discarding of electronics like chargers, laptops, phones, and televisions. Electronics like chargers and the everyday smartphone are made with highly hazardous materials, and improper disposal of them through shredding, burning or dismantlement often results in poisonous greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention soil and water pollution. 


Figure delineating the life cycles of smartphones across different countries. (CC: UNITU)

In the United States, the most common electronic devices owned by the average American adult are cellphones followed by smartphones and laptops. According to the UN-ITU’s study, the world saw an increase from 20 percent to 50 percent in the number of households connected to the internet between 2007 and 2017. Although increased internet usage and ownership of internet/cellular data-enabled devices implies a growth in global connectivity, this exponential growth has serious repercussions on the environment.

The UN-ITU claims that approximately 45 million tons of electronic waste were disposed of in 2016 alone, yielding a monetary waste of $55 billion as a result. Of the 45 million tons that were discarded, only 20 percent were recycled or reused in some manner. 


Figure explaining the cycle that e-waste takes to end up in landfills. (CC: UNITU)

The world, however, does not contribute equally to electronic waste. According to the report, Western, Northern Europe and Russia combined contribute approximately 28% to global e-waste while Africa only contributes 5% to the total amount. However, the former recycled an average of 35% of its waste in comparison to Africa, which recycled none of its e-waste.

There have been scores of creative initiatives to raise awareness about proper waste disposal and to encourage the average citizen to recycle, including the world’s first recycled mall – ReTuna Återbruksgalleria – in Sweden. There have also been efforts to call for a reduction in e-waste like UN-ITU’s “eco-friendly universal charger,” a charger that promises to reduce emissions and e-waste at the same time, but the rallying cry needs to grow louder.

While the world has focused efforts on going green with paper recycling, it has lagged on paying equal attention to e-waste. One upside to fast-paced technological advancement is that less materials are being used, taking up less space in landfills. But that does not redact the fact that more electronics are being produced altogether, meaning the global footprint of e-waste is growing at an alarming rate.