Electronic Waste Generation is Shrinking Despite Growing Dependence on Technology


Pile of discarded smartphone and tablet screens.
Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | January 4, 2021

A new study revealed a 10% decline in electronic waste (e-waste) generated in the United States since 2015 despite increasing dependence on smartphones and other technology.

The study, published in The Journal of Industrial Ecology, also found that the total number of electronic devices entering the waste stream is leveling off or declining due to the versatility of modern devices. Many devices, like gaming consoles and smartphones, now have multiple uses and features, so people only need one device to meet their needs rather than two or three. For example, individuals no longer need a separate camera, camcorder and cellphone now that smartphones have quality cameras built in. The decline in e-waste can also be attributed to the phasing out of bigger, older products like computer monitors and cathode-ray televisions, according to a Yale E360 article.

The findings contradict the widely-held belief that e-waste is a rapidly growing waste stream. While a decline in waste generation is positive, it does raise concerns over the way current e-waste recycling regulations in the U.S. are structured. Currently, only half of U.S. states have e-waste recycling laws, and most set their targets based on mass, according to the Yale E360 article. Because the total mass of e-waste output is declining, meeting those targets could become more complicated.

Shahana Althaf, the lead author of the study, said that laws should shift their focus from simply keeping electronics with high lead and mercury levels out of landfills to finding ways to recover useful elements from these devices and reuse them. Elements like cobalt and indium are relatively rare and are commonly used in electronic devices, so making the effort to recover and recycle them would serve as a positive first step toward transforming e-waste into a resource and ensure a domestic supply in the U.S. It would also reduce the need for mining operations that cause devastating environmental destruction.

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