Rapid innovation and ever-shortening technology lifespans are driving a rapid increase in electrical waste. Laptops now typically get binned after two years, well before the end of their usable lives of around five. Televisions are also frequently switched for the latest and greatest cinematic innovation.
Much of this is consumerism however, Moore’s law, which decrees a doubling of computing power every two years doesn’t help.
Switzerland held the unenviable record of producing the world’s 2nd highest amount of per capita annual electronic waste, according to the recently published 2014 United Nations University report on electrical waste. Second only to Norway, the average Swiss resident threw away 26.3 kg of electrical goods, a national total of 213 million kg.
The global electronic waste total was a whopping 41.8 billion kg. This is enough cover the entire surface of Lake Geneva in a 60 cm layer of toxic garbage.
On a per capita basis China was a lightweight at 4.4 kg per person. The US came in at 22.1 kg, not far behind the UK at 23.5 kg.
This waste, which comes from screens and lamps (7.2 billion kg), small IT like mobile phones (3.0 billion kg), small equipment such as vacuum cleaners (12.8 billion kg), large equipment such as ovens (11.8 billion kg) and cooling equipment (7.0 billion kg) is full of toxic chemicals such as lead and ozone destroying substances. Electronic waste often gets mixed with general household waste and ends up leaching toxins in landfill or getting incinerated and poisoning the air.
At the same time this waste is potentially valuable, worth an estimated 48 billion Euros. Most valuable is the gold (€10 billion), copper (€11 billion), steel (€9 billion) and recyclable plastic (€12 billion). The challenge is getting people to dispose of it properly so that it can be recycled.
Switzerland and Norway both have enviable recycling performances. Switzerland collects 61% of its electronic waste while Norway manages 72%. The US and UK by comparison only manage 14% and 23% respectively while China beats the US with a collection rate of 21%. A per capita comparison of uncollected waste puts Switzerland well ahead of all three of these countries.
So perhaps we should try to resist the pull of the latest upgrade when the current one still does the job, and make more of an effort to retire old devices to the right place.
Full UN University 2014 report (in English)