The widening e-waste issue and the environmental impact of Apple’s policies

10 Oct 2019

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Plunc’s Stewart McGrenary takes stock of the world’s e-waste, citing examples of countries and companies taking the right steps to sustainability.

We live in an age of rampant consumerism. With technology moving at a rapid pace, no one wants to get ‘left behind’. Plus, having the latest and greatest gives people a sense of self-worth.

But what happens to unwanted devices? They end up in landfill sites to become someone else’s problem. This doesn’t just release harmful gases into the atmosphere but also affects water sources and habitats.

Notably, most of the e-waste sent to landfill is functional or can be recycled. Furthermore, increasing electronic recycling rates doesn’t just help the environment, but could also open up a lot of employment opportunities.

The e-waste problem

According to a 2004 UN study, it takes at least 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of chemicals and 1,500kg of water to manufacture one computer and monitor. And what happens when that computer reaches the end of its life? Fuel is burned to transport it to a landfill site.

Waste electronic devices contain gold, copper and logic boards, which could be used to create other gadgets. So, in brief, we are disposing of valuable resources.

The growth of buy-and-sell platforms such as Facebook Marketplace and eBay has encouraged more recycling of electronic products. However, this assumes that there is a demand. For instance, a second-hand iPhone is likely to sell much more quickly than a phone from a ‘no-name’ brand. Judging by the 50m tonnes of e-waste produced each year, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Companies such as Plunc have also tried to tackle the e-waste problem by buying second-hand items and then refurbishing them to resell at a profit. However, this only tackles a part of the broader issue as some electronic devices aren’t profitable for small businesses to refurbish and resell.

Sweden sets an example

For any e-waste recycling system to work, you need the following elements: good infrastructure for efficient recycling; legislation to motivate stakeholders to dispose of their electronic goods properly; and a high-tech tracking system to gather data and find areas of improvement.

We can learn a lot from Sweden, which had an e-waste recycling rate of 55.4pc as of 2016. This is due to enacting legislation that holds companies accountable for proper disposal of their e-waste.

Moreover, the Swedish government invested in infrastructure to recycle as many electronic devices as possible. It also invests in campaigns to educate inhabitants about the importance of recycling. This has created a robust e-waste recycling culture among the population.

Most importantly, the Swedish government has set up a unique tracking system to improve year on year and increase accountability.

Apple’s efforts to tackle e-waste

Apple is one of the world’s most valuable brands. Aside from leading the way in the tech world, Apple influences culture. At first glance, its forays into recycling and reducing emissions generated by its activities seemed to be marketing talk. However, as per its latest Environmental Responsibility Report, Apple and a number of its suppliers will jointly invest a nine-figure sum into connecting suppliers in China with renewable energy sources.

Reading the report, I understand that Apple has been able to have its retail and office operations entirely run on renewable energy sources, and is now working hard to bring suppliers and contractors on board.

Apple also designed the internal components of its latest products to reduce the amount of silicon used in chips. As a result, its carbon footprint in 2018 reduced by 160,000 metric tons. Additionally, the 2018 MacBook Air and Mac Mini launched with 100pc recycled aluminium enclosures, effectively halving the carbon footprint of these products. Apple has also partnered with companies and governments to invest a combined $144m into the research and development of carbon-free aluminium smelting.

Apple also has a recycling robot, Daisy, which can disassemble a variety of iPhones into components that can be used in the creation of new iPhones. Apple hopes to share this innovation with other tech companies.

Final thoughts

Notably, Samsung, another heavyweight in the tech world, also has an e-waste recycling programme, though it’s just a five-page directive issued to suppliers. Huawei, one of the world’s largest smartphone manufacturers, also has an e-waste recycling programme. However, this just seems more like a tick-box exercise. It doesn’t have the same top-down approach Apple has taken to reduce its impact on the environment.

One complaint tech consumers have is that new devices are released too often. For instance, Apple releases new versions of all its devices each year. Arguably, this encourages consumers to upgrade their devices regularly thereby worsening the e-waste issue. However, every Apple product is supported via software updates for at least five years. Notably, the most popular iPhone happens to be the iPhone 7, released in 2016.

At the moment, environmental policies are focused on reducing emissions created by using electricity at home and in transport. This makes sense because it is easily understandable by a mainstream audience.

Due to the nature of e-waste, for any recycling programme to work, governments will need to get on board. This means creating laws, building infrastructure and educating the public on why recycling e-waste is important.

By Stewart McGrenary

Stewart McGrenary is managing director of Phonesmart, the parent company of Plunc, which specialises in the recycling of refurbished iPads, MacBooks, iPhones and other tech devices.