Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Smartphones Are Part of a Global E-Waste Problem

This is a good reason to hold onto your phones for as long as possible.

According to the Solving the E-waste Problem initiative, which is hosted by the United Nations University (UNU) in Europe, “Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to all items of electrical and electronic equipment and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use.” Smartphones fall into an e-waste category of small information technology (IT) and telecommunication equipment, which includes Global Positioning Systems (GPS), pocket calculators, routers, personal computers, printers, and telephones. Their features overlap with other screens: monitors, televisions, laptops, notebooks, and tablets. Discarding these devices creates very large quantities of waste, mostly because of the short lifespan that corporations have chosen to give them through their quest for state-of-the-art electronics, AKA built-in obsolescence.

Measuring e-waste is notoriously difficult, but it is generally agreed that screens, small IT, and telecommunication devices account for just over 10 percent of total e-waste we generate globally, which is currently about 46 to 50 million metric tons and is growing by 3 to 4 percent annually. According to a joint study by the UNU and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), only 20 percent is actually documented e-waste designated for recycling. The remaining 80 percent is a statistical projection drawn from data analysis of sales, trade volume and weight, and lifespan averages of electronic and electric equipment. Compounding the measurement problem is the fact that one-third of the world’s population live where there is no e-waste legislation, and only 41 countries produce official e-waste statistics. The fate of all that undocumented waste is uncertain, though researchers have assumed that it gets dumped in landfills or recycled in low-tech, high-hazard conditions.

If we index these smaller digital devices to overall e-waste production analyzed in the UNU/ITU report, we can calculate that most digital waste is produced in Asia, and the least in Africa. China holds the top spot for overall e-waste production, North America and the European Union produce the highest amounts per capita, and Oceania has similar levels per inhabitant. This is mostly due to Australia’s high level of per capita waste production, even though Oceania as a whole produces the lowest amount of per person e-waste.

What each country in these regions do with this waste is appalling, as far as we can tell from existing evidence. We know that most of the digital waste produced in the US is sent to Asia for recycling or dumping. But the data on this flow of e-waste is as murky as the overall picture of global e-waste. US recyclers claim that the majority of documented e-waste is recycled in the US. But a recent study by the Basel Action Network (BAN) revealed a disturbing trend of “export denial in the recycling industry.” The study was based on evidence from radio tracking devices that BAN had installed in electronics then delivered to certified recyclers in the US. They found that 40 percent of the tracked electronic waste had been exported, nearly all of it illegally.

The export of waste containing toxic material is regulated by the 1992 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. The Convention imposes strict rules on the proper methods for transport and handling of e-waste, and stricter rules limiting or prohibiting altogether e-waste exports to developing countries, where much of it ends up in landfills, sub-standard treatment sites, and low-tech salvage yards. It is illegal for any signatory country to receive e-waste from the US—the only wealthy country that has refused to sign the Basel Convention.

Until 2017, China was the destination of 70 percent of all the world’s e-waste. New restrictions have reduced the volume that China imports as it deals with its internal burden of waste management by shifting e-waste exports to smaller Asian countries where waste merchants can dump the overflow. Nevertheless, a portion of the e-waste analyzed in the BAN study ended up in mainland China. Most of the rest arrived in Hong Kong, while some was sent to Pakistan, Thailand, Taiwan, Cambodia, United Arab Emirates, Togo, and Kenya.

While the European Union leads the world in e-waste collection and recycling, it is not innocent of illegal exports to poorer countries. Much of the Union’s electronic waste ends up in Asia and in West Africa, specifically Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria. Ghana and Nigeria are the main ports of entry in West Africa for e-waste from around the world. Over three-quarters of imported e-waste into Nigeria originates in the European Union, and most of that is smuggled inside motor vehicles shipped as “roll on/roll off” cargo to Lagos.

There is a dreadful human cost to these illegal shipments of e-waste to Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Digital devices like smartphones can contain a range of toxic components causing numerous health and ecosystem risks. The health risks include brain damage, headaches, vertigo, nausea, birth defects, diseases of the bones, stomach, lungs, and other vital organs, and disrupted biological development in children. These conditions result from exposure to heavy metals (lead, cadmium, chromium, and mercury), and to burned plastics, and poisonous, often carcinogenic, fumes emitted when melting components in search of precious metals. Plastics are a particularly pernicious problem in e-waste treatment, because the flame retardants and toxic elements and heavy metals used in their production can release hazardous chemicals into the environment and food chain if not properly recycled.

There are very few incentives to manage the majority of exported e-waste transparently and legally, despite estimates that the recovery of high-value components could be worth as much as $63 billion. At least 60 elements from the periodic table are technically recoverable in smartphones; they contain precious metals, including gold, silver, copper, platinum, and palladium; there are recyclable plastics as well as recoverable metals like iron and aluminum. Rare earth metals are also present. A Swiss study showed that while critical metals like neodymium and indium are found in small quantities, they provide key functions to digital devices: Indium tin oxide is both electrically conductive and transparent, making it a key material in LCD screens; neodymium is used to produce the tiny but strong magnets found in the speakers of headphones and smartphones. As the UNU/ITU report puts it, from a “resource perspective for secondary raw materials of e-waste” the potential value for high-tech, low hazard recycling would amount to “more than the 2016 Gross Domestic Product of most countries in the world.”

The multiple issues associated with e-waste present us with very compelling reasons to hold on to our phones for as long as possible. The waste stream is already filled with enough discarded digital devices to overwhelm the capacity of existing e-waste management systems. The pressure to by-pass legitimate processes that exist in Europe and the Americas is so great that even certified recyclers have been exposed for what BAN calls “export denial.” So, caution is prescribed. If we must replace our smartphones, let’s wait until they are truly beyond repair. Then we should do our damnedest to make sure they get to a reputable and tested recycler or directly to the manufacturers that recycle their products. In the meantime, we have another smartphone life-cycle matter to consider—their lifetime electricity consumption and the resulting carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

Letting go of the habits of a lifetime is tough—whether the decade and a half since smartphones arrived is most of your own life, or just a fraction. When we quit doing dangerous things, that’s usually about rejecting pleasurable risks, whether they be from jumping out of planes or putting lighted bits of paper in our mouths. Replacing those leaps and habits with a sense of the impact on others of what we, through an ethical identification with e-waste workers and nearby residents, is crucial for a healthier planet.