The ongoing pandemic drives workforces to work from home and creates a new calculus. Businesses must be resilient and flexible as knowledge workers increasingly choose their tools as well as workplaces.
There are environmental rewards in this equation, but also environmental hazards. “Changes in technology such as cloud computing and the internet of things (IoT) could hold the potential to “dematerialize” the electronics industry,” said the World Economic Forum (WEF) in a 2019 report.
“The rise of service business models and better product tracking and takeback could lead to global circular value chains. Material efficiency, recycling infrastructure, and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential,” the report added.
The WEF considers circular value chains essential, but suppliers still have a financial responsibility to their stakeholders. Noble concepts need bottom-line support, whether through tax breaks or other means. Private sectors should cleave to government mandates, but governments must pay attention to the costs of e-waste disposal and who should bear those costs.
E-waste: a perennial issue
Wikipedia describes electronic waste (e-waste) as discarded electrical or electronic devices. In recent years, flat screens have supplanted bulky CRT displays — a plus as the former required large quantities of industrial metals to manufacture, which became pollutants further down the chain. Big boxy desktop computers gave way to smaller laptops and touchscreen devices.
These innovations helped reduce overall e-waste, but there are far more devices now in the hands of consumers and enterprises alike. And there are issues with the extraction of the minerals required to produce the devices we use to get our work done and the disposal of decommissioned equipment.
“Globally, society only deals with 20% of e-waste appropriately, and there is little data on what happens to the rest, which for the most part ends up in landfill or is disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions,” said the WEF report. “Yet e-waste is worth at least USD 62.5 billion annually, which is more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of most countries.”
Rare earths and their extraction
Rare earths are specific minerals used in production. Costs can be as volatile as cryptocurrency, but sourcing these minerals is geopolitically complex. The planet's supply is finite, and most of the land area has been surveyed — North Korea and the ex-Soviet ex-permafrost excepted.
According to a BBC article that quotes a British Geological Survey, rare earths specific to tech include neodymium, making computer hard drives smaller and more efficient. In addition, yttrium, terbium, and europium are “important in making televisions and computer screens and other devices that have visual displays as they are used in making materials that give off different colors.”
While our tech landscape needs these exotic minerals, more mundane materials are a problem in the e-waste disposal chain.
“Used electronics which are destined for refurbishment, reuse, resale, salvage recycling through material recovery, or disposal are also considered e-waste,” says Wikipedia. “Informal processing of e-waste in developing countries can lead to adverse human health effects and environmental pollution.”
A report by the U.S.-based National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) titled “E-Waste Recycling in China: A Health Disaster in the Making?” outlines the situation.
“Guiyu, China, is the last stop for tens of millions of tons of discarded TVs, cell phones, batteries, computer monitors, and other types of electronic waste each year,” said the report. In this area of Guangdong province in southeast China, the industry is characterized by thousands of small, family-run workshops [which] employ hundreds of thousands of local and migrant workers to extract copper, silver, gold, platinum, and other materials for resale, often burning or using acid baths to separate out the elements of interest.”
Wikipedia: “Electronic scrap components, such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants. Recycling and disposal of e-waste may involve significant risk to health of workers and their communities.”
In the 2013 report, the NIEHS estimated that 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are produced annually worldwide, the “fastest-growing stream of municipal solid waste. In developing countries where most informal and primitive e-waste recycling occurs, workers and others who live near these recycling facilities are exposed to dangerous chemicals with potentially long-term adverse health effects.” According to the NIEHS, other locations where such recycling is prevalent include India, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria.
Sustainability and brand equity
“At the start of this year, Apple announced it is modifying executive bonuses based on environmental values in 2021,” wrote Rebecca Scheel in Forbes Magazine. “Microsoft also recently took major action and pledged to become a carbon-negative company within ten years.”
“In 2009, [Dell] became the first in our industry to ban the export of nonworking electronics and e-waste to developing countries,” says Dell on their website. “The unregulated disposal of e-waste can negatively impact the environment, health, and safety of regions like China, India, and Africa.”
Apple also promotes its carbon neutrality stance. In July 2020, the firm “...unveiled its plan to become carbon neutral across its entire business, manufacturing supply chain, and product life cycle by 2030.”
Brand perception helps create brand equity, and 'sustainability' is a popular buzzword. In 2021, a positive stance towards sustainability and the environment can help boost brand equity.
Strategies for the future
There's no easy answer to the problem of e-waste. But there are strategies that chief digital officers should keep in mind.
Governments should employ a carrot-and-stick approach: plaudits and financial incentives for companies to comply with environmental initiatives.
Firms should communicate their e-waste strategies to both governments and their stakeholders. Proper e-waste policy should ideally help promote brand equity.
Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IoT, payment gateways, robotics, and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].
Image credit: iStockphoto/Ladislav Kubeš