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Understanding E-Waste and How It Relates to ESG

E-waste is the quickest-growing source of trash across the globe. It also falls squarely under the ‘E’ in ESG and provides ample opportunity for companies to demonstrate their environmental responsibility.

According to the UN’s Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, E-waste is the quickest-growing source of trash across the globe. This can be attributed primarily to the increasing demand for electrical and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and limited options for repair.  

Adopting the latest technology and equipment has obvious benefits for large corporations looking to optimize their performance. But while this solves many problems, it leaves them with a big question: where is the e-waste going? 

What is e-waste?

E-waste is electronic and electrical waste, many tons of which are thrown away every year worldwide without proper environmental considerations. 

E-waste presents a significant environmental challenge because it can contain toxic chemicals like cadmium, lead, arsenic, polyvinyl chlorides (PVC), and more. And when improperly discarded, e-waste can filter into groundwater and pollute the atmosphere. 

The most forward-looking companies now pay close attention to their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance, so finding the most eco-friendly way to discard e-waste is a win-win for corporate responsibility and human health. 

E-waste falls squarely under the “E” in ESG, and provides ample opportunity for companies to demonstrate their environmental responsibility. Corporations can do that by implementing stringent end-to-end e-waste recycling programs, ensuring they properly recycle and dispose of used electronic and electrical equipment, causing no harm to the natural world.

E-waste as a cross-sector problem

According to a 2020 study by the Global E-Waste Monitor, e-waste is a cross-sector problem. Toxic electronic refuse is increasingly being produced by a wide range of individuals, households, businesses, and organizations in both private and public sectors causing an escalating environmental hazard.

According to the UN’s Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste was generated in 2019 — a 21% increase in just five years. 

That study also anticipates worldwide e-waste totals reaching 74 million metric tons by 2030, which would be a nearly 100% increase in only 16 years. 

With the world producing around 2 billion metric tons of solid waste annually, e-waste accounts for nearly 3% of that total. Of that 2 billion, 37% ends up in landfills.

The problem is that e-waste contains toxic materials that often aren’t disposed of in eco-friendly ways. As e-waste totals continue to increase from that 3%, more and more harmful materials end up in landfills, leeching toxic substances into the earth. 

Unfortunately, the recycling rate for e-waste in 2019 was only 17.4%, meaning vast quantities of copper, silver, gold, and platinum (valued at $57 billion) were discarded or burned instead of reused. 

The UN report named Asia as the largest producer of e-waste in 2019, disposing of 24.9 million metric tons. Next in line were the Americas with 13.1 million metric tons and Europe with 12 million metric tons. Rounding out the list were Africa with 2.9 million metric tons and Oceania with 0.7 million metric tons. 

E-waste management has become imperative as electrical and electronic equipment play an increasingly important role in essential business and entertainment. As our usage and dependency on these items increase, so does the need for responsible e-waste management. 

Managing e-waste responsibly

Electronic waste examples include many electrical and electronic equipment categories, such as laptops, cathode ray tube screens, mobile devices, and home entertainment systems.

For companies, this could mean a broad selection of items - screens and monitors, personal computers and laptops, printers, routers, copying equipment, and many more.

There are several options for handling e-waste such as reuse, recycling, refurbishment, and eco-friendly disposal. These alternatives vary from item to item, but any of them are considered a far more responsible option than landfill. 

Reuse is an option for e-waste in good working condition, while refurbishment can restore worn-out devices into sellable condition, extending their usefulness and reducing waste. Companies can recycle equipment such as laptops, monitors, printers, and scanners. 
During the e-waste recycling process, workers or machines separate valuable materials from equipment for later use in manufacturing. Those materials can include precious metals, plastics, and glass.

Why safe disposal matters 

Improper disposal of e-waste presents a significant environmental risk. While today’s advanced devices provide amazing conveniences and processing ability, they often use toxic materials that carry substantial ecological risks. 

These harmful substances include mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead, all of which are toxic to wildlife, soil, water, and air. 

When e-waste ends up in a traditional landfill, minute amounts of these elements filter into the surrounding soil and groundwater. Over time as waste accumulates in a landfill, the toxic effects of e-waste can have far-reaching consequences on the environment and the populations around the landfill.

Although company data may seem like an afterthought when discarding e-waste, it's of the utmost importance. Servers, laptops, tablets, and hard drives could hold sensitive data. It's vital to erase them before disposal. Some e-waste companies specializing in IT asset disposition (ITAD) assist in decommissioning and wiping companies’ used equipment.

Why companies should take e-waste seriously

As consumers and investors look for corporations that show accountability in ESG issues, companies can gain an edge by implementing best practices in each area. When a company closely monitors and creates a plan for its e-waste, it shows accountability to the natural environment, benefiting people, wildlife, and the planet. 

Thankfully, many software companies are working to solve the e-waste issue, trying to reduce its adverse effects on the natural environment. 

Microsoft, Google, and Dell joined forces to create a circular economy for electronics by 2030. Google, for example, helps users recycle their old Google products and other electronics no longer in use, while Microsoft aims to eliminate single-use plastics in packaging and improve waste data. Apple helps users recycle their old Apple products for free, and has also announced they’ll produce the newest iPhones using recycled rare earth materials.

As a leader in the global technology market, Apple has an aggressive stance toward recycling e-waste. Apple demonstrates its commitment to environmental responsibility with a holistic recycling program that recycles cobalt and tin and uses carbon-free aluminum. Apple also aims to be carbon neutral by 2030, showing its pledge toward creating a better world. 

*Disclaimer: This summary is for general education purposes only and may be subject to change. ESGgo, Inc., and its affiliates (the “Company”, “ESGgo”, “we”, or “us”) cannot guarantee the accuracy of the statements made or conclusions reached in this summary and we expressly disclaim all representations and warranties (whether express or implied by statute or otherwise) whatsoever.