E-waste: An environmental problem potentially managed by consumer behaviour trends

The alarming rate at which e-waste continues to pile up around the world has presented environmentalists with a new set of challenges.

According to the World Economic Forum, 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated each year and is projected to increase to a staggering 120 million tonnes by 2050 if nothing is done to remedy the issue. A global study conducted by United Nations University in 2014 estimated that Singapore alone contributed to approximately 109,000 tonnes of e-waste – amounting to about 19.5kg per Singaporean for the year 2014. This worrying figure is backed up by results from a  consumer survey done by the National Environment Agency (NEA), revealing a lowly 6 per cent of households who actually do send their e-waste for recycling. 

Devising ways to tackle this growth should hence be a matter of paramount importance. 

Poor practice

Most people get rid of their e-waste by simply discarding them in bins because it’s expedient to do so. This form of poor e-waste management can imperil the wellbeing of people and the environment because of the hazardous materials it contains. 

Lithium-ion batteries commonly found in devices such as laptops and smartphones can potentially start a fire when compacted with recycling paper. E-waste also contains harmful materials like beryllium and mercury and when sent for incineration, releases harmful gases into the atmosphere causing severe air pollution. 

5G and the future

The brevity of electronic devices’ lifespan and the unrelenting advancement in technology will only add to these problems. Despite the impending 5G revolution involving wireless technology promising faster speeds and greater benefits to users, it will also substantially add to an already rapidly-growing e-waste stockpile. 5G will render many phones useless because of the incompatibility with the new networks, hence creating a larger pool of e-waste because of a renewed insatiable demand for brand new up-to-date phones. 

Light at the end of the tunnel

Policies have been implemented across the world in a bid to reduce e-waste, enforcing responsible distribution and disposal of electronic devices on manufacturers. Whether that succeeds remains to be seen. However, there have been sufficient research to suggest that the used phone market will become a booming business in the coming years. 

As the population grows increasingly conscious of the environmental concerns, economists and tech experts are prophesying a growth in the refurbished phone market as consumer shifts towards a no-contract (sim-only) plan. Opping for a refurbished predecessor model to the latest ones currently in stores at any given time is a frugal approach adopted by savvy consumers since people change their devices once every two years. What is new will eventually be yours to enjoy 12 months later.  

This shift in consumer behaviour will have a positive effect on the environment as older phone models are more likely to find owners, slowing down the purchase of newer phones and also the growth in e-waste.