E-Waste Is Taking Over the World. 5G Will Make It Even Worse

Agbogbloshie, a commercial district in Accra, Ghana, around 10,000 of the poorest people in the country sort through much of the world’s electronic waste. With no other way of making a living, they use crude methods to dismantle electronic devices—burning them or dousing them in acid—which expose them to toxic emissions and substances that often lead to acute and long-term health problems. In 2014, Agbogbloshie was deemed one of the 10 most polluted places on Earth, with lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium found in the air, water and soil at concentrations 100 times higher than safe levels.

Agbogbloshie has a reputation as an e-waste hellhole, but there’s more to its story. In 2013, D.K. Osseo-Asare, an assistant professor of architecture and engineering design at Penn State, and his colleague Yasmine Abbas, a French architect and strategic designer, launched the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform, a project that aims to empower the district’s scrap workers and give a second life to e-waste. AMP provides workers with a customizable kiosk kitted out with tools and equipment they can use to dismantle, create or refurbish devices. A digital platform then connects scrap dealers to buyers, makers to materials and blueprints, and people with broken items to workers who can fix them. The project, whose network included more than 750 workers by 2018, is now looking to expand to other locations, and the Ghanaian government is also developing its own e-waste “upcycling” platform based on AMP, where discarded electronics can be made into something more valuable.

Seventy-eight countries currently have policies aimed at limiting or regulating e-waste, but they are obviously not effective enough. In September last year, the Basel Convention’s 1994 Ban Amendment, which prohibits the export of hazardous e-waste from developed countries to less developed ones, finally received enough ratifications to come into force as international law. The countries that have ratified it must now establish domestic legislation or other measures to implement it, which should give teeth to international efforts to manage hazardous e-waste more responsibly. Still, its impact will be limited. The U.S. has not ratified the ban, and as much as 40 percent of the e-waste supposedly recycled in the U.S. in 2018 actually ended up in developing countries, where recycling is usually unlicensed and unregulated. The United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Poland and Spain also reportedly exported e-waste to developing countries⎯shipments that, because the EU incorporated the Ban Amendment into its own laws in 1995, were potentially illegal.In the meantime, the e-waste problem is growing rapidly.

In 2019, the world set a record for e-waste, generating 53.6 million metric tons of it. Only 17.4 percent of discarded electronic devices were recycled.

The mining and processing of rare earths and other metals used in the production of electronics result in ocean acidification, deforestation, eutrophication, biodiversity loss and pollution of agricultural land. People living and working near mines or e-waste dumps face an increased risk of developing illnesses due to contaminated drinking water and food. Hazardous materials, such as mercury and cyanide, which are used in cobalt processing, can pollute ecosystems. Flame-retardants and halogenated organic emissions from the manufacture of aluminum deplete the ozone layer. Particulate matter produced during mining, smelting and transportation reduces air quality. Despite these effects, rare earths are essential for new technologies, so the industry is attempting to diversity and expand, as the U.S, and Europe try to secure new supply chains for rare earths that do not rely on China.

Designing New Solutions

As part of its Sustainable Development Goals, 17 ambitious objectives for everything from alleviating poverty to mitigating climate change, the United Nations is aiming to reach net-zero emissions globally by 2050, which it recognizes will require “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Fifty-five percent of all greenhouse gas emissions today derive from energy use, so decarbonizing the electrical system with renewable energy, storge and carbon capture technologies will be essential, particularly with 5G looming. But the remaining 45 percent of global emissions come from the production of food and various consumer goods. It will be impossible, then, to reach carbon zero if the world does not move away from the current linear economy—extracting raw materials, manufacturing things, using and then disposing of them—to a circular one that reuses, shares, repairs, refurbishes, remanufactures and recycles products.

Some private companies and government measures are already making progress to improve circularity and help reduce waste. To begin with, much of this work takes place during the process of designing a product. According to a University of Oslo study, decisions made during the design stage for a new mobile phone determine 80 percent of its environmental impact. This is when most of the features and costs that affect a phone’s longevity⎯materials, size, weight, repairability and recyclability⎯are determined.

5G technology has the potential to benefit the environment in many ways, but it will also increase demand for raw materials and exacerbate the e-waste problem.

The prevalence and speed of 5G will help conserve natural resources by enabling many industries to become more efficient, especially when it is combined with cloud computing, artificial intelligence and other “smart” technologies. The multitude of sensors in connected devices⎯including appliances and gadgets installed in buildings, factories, streetlights and residences⎯will be able to monitor and analyze energy use in real time and optimize it. Smart products used in farming would be better able to monitor crop and soil conditions to make irrigation more precise, thereby conserving water. Sensors could detect air and water pollution, facilitating a government’s ability to regulate emissions, or could identify leaks of water, methane and other gases in pipelines, preventing the waste of resources and averting disasters.

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