Wenbin Lu, We Grow Green Tech
What Is E-Waste?
Over the past few years, e-waste has become one of the fastest growing sectors in the world’s waste system. Electronic waste or e-waste, describes electronic products discarded by their owners as waste, without the intent of reuse. Common e-waste can include computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, photocopiers, etc. Some of them can be re-used, re-furbished and re-sold, while others are destined for salvage, recycling or disposal.
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The Hazards of E-Waste
As the technology is advancing year by year, we have developed a culture of upgrading our electronics to the newest generation. Although most of the new features are not necessary for us with our current electronics working perfectly well, we are still willing to spend money on the latest model. As a result of this throw-away culture, millions of tons of e-waste are produced each year. If not handled properly, the mass accumulations of e-waste could lead to severe consequences.
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Each e-waste generator has different materials, which bring different level of harm to both the environment and human well-being. According to GreenCitizen, toxic components include Mercury, Lead, Cadmium, Barium, and Lithium, which could cause severe health problems. For instance, high-level exposure to lead may cause anaemia, kidney and brain damage. Currently in the US, the although the e-waste only makes up 2~3% of the landfill waste, it contains almost 70% of the toxins entering the waste stream.
Current Market and Policy Regarding E-Waste
It is estimated in 2019 that 53.6 million tons of e-waste was generated globally, and it is predicted to reach 74.7 million tons in 2030. In 2019, the USA produced 6.918 million tons of e-waste, in which only 15% was recycled ethically. Given such a huge amount of e-waste not treated in the correct manner, the potential for the e-waste management market is phenomenal. In 2019, the value of raw materials in e-waste regenerated was approximately worth $57 billion USD, including gold, copper and iron, etc. The e-waste management market is becoming a highly profitable industry. In a recent report by Allied Market Research:
The global e-waste management market was pegged at $41.97 billion in 2019, and is anticipated to reach $102.62 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 11.9% from 2020 to 2027.
Graph by The Global E-waste Monitor 2020
As of 2019, 78 countries have enforced a national e-waste policy, legislation or regulations. Although the United States of America does not enact national legislation to regulate the cycling of e-waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), although 25 states have announced different legislations to control the rapid accumulation of e-waste. The first state to pass on the law of e-waste recycling was California in 2003.
Challenges of Scaling the E-Waste Market
Low Collection & Recycling Rate
The potential of the e-waste management market has not been explored. In 2019, the global documented e-waste collection and recycling was 9.3 Million tons, which only takes up 17.4% of the total 53.6 million tons generated. According to the statistics, Europe has the highest collection and recycling rate with 42.5%, while America came in at only 9.4%.
Graph by The Global E-waste Monitor 2020
Among the 82.6% of undocumented e-waste, a portion of this is discarded and eventually directed to landfill sites, some is exported as e-waste or second-hand products. Most of the undocumented e-waste travels into waste streams directly and as a consequence, the valuable materials in the e-waste streams had been dissolved and potentially became the hazards to the environment and human health. For e-waste exported to low-income developing counties, without the technology and regulations regarding this, this would be handled incorrectly in reciept of this, therefore causing far more severe environmental pollution and loss of recyclable value. In summary, the collection and recycling rate need urgent improvement to support the rapid growth of the generation of e-waste streams.
Limits of Sale Channels
Another challenge of scaling up the e-waste market is the limit of sale channels. The most popular way to sell the used or refurbished electronics is through online shopping platforms, such as eBay. On eBay, everyone can register as an individual seller without complicated verification. The users are able to list their used or refurbished electronics on eBay for free with the basic description of the products. While everyone is enjoying the convenience these platforms can bring, they need to accept the downside of this particular way of selling.
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The consistency of the description and the product itself usually does not match. The reasons why customers do not receive the items they expected vary. It highly depends on the credibility of the sellers, although sometimes is due to sellers being incapable of correctly describing products. Compared to the traditional B2C platform, the pricing is not transparent enough and the return policy is not good enough and more difficult to carry out. Though some platforms may provide the service to verify the conditions, it will cost extra money and go against the idea of saving. So, the inexperience of buyers prevents them from purchasing in large quantites and high frequencies.
Important Roles of Organizations in E-Waste Management:
Besides governmental regulations, the efforts of the organizations dedicated to preventing harmful consequences stemming from e-waste can not be neglected. One of the most important organizations serving the recycling of e-waste is TERRA.
TERRA represents largest network Certified Recyclers in North America and is dedicated to eliminating hazardous e-waste from contaminating the air, land and water by diverting used electronics to the care of responsible e-waste recycling and ITAD service providers to maximize the sustainable reuse and recycling of natural resources.
image from www.jointerra.org
Only Certified businesses like TERRA’s members adhere to rigorous standards and ongoing oversight that protect individuals and organizations against data breaches and can effectively mitigate the dangers associated with the improper disposal of e-waste.
In summary, there are both huge opportunities and challenges in the e-waste market. This is a rapidly growing market worth approximately $41.97 billion in 2019 and expected to reach $102.62 billion by 2027. The urgent goal for the world is to increase the collection and recycling rate and discover diverse ways to scale up the sale channels, to a commercial level. With the help of organizations like TERRA, we are beginning to envision the future of the e-waste market in a more sustainable way.
 “Harmful Effects Caused by Improper Computer & Electronic Waste Recycling” greencitizen. [Online]
 “Regulations, Initiatives and Research on Electronics Stewardship”. United States Environmental Protection Agency.
“The Global E-waste Monitor 2020”. Vanessa Forti, Cornelis Peter Baldé, Ruediger Kuehr, Garam Bel.