Japan combats E-waste of our digital generation
Our expert's opinion
"How many smartphones, tablets or other digital devices have you bought in the past five years and how many have you thrown away?
Even though we read our newspapers online and stop printing info that we can now easily take with us on our smartphone, the environment is not getting better. Every year, the toxic waste of our dumped smartphones and other tech gadgets is getting larger. Asian and African countries are seriously suffering from the negative effects of the manual dismantling and recycling processes.
It is a challenge to redesign the production and recycling processes of our technology, but luckily, companies and state officials are starting to think about innovative solutions. Japan is now launching a new initiative to reduce the ‘gadget waste’ by using the recycled material to create the Olympic medals. Let us hope that this original approach motivates other countries and governments to invest more time and means into tackling the toxic waste problem of our digital generation."
- Anastasiya Vypryts'ka, Associate Consultant
Global E-waste To Hit 49.8M Tons By 2018 -- Here's What Japan Is Doing To Combat It
Every four years, the host country of the Olympic games revels in the global spotlight for sixteen days. While few countries are able to create a lasting imprint once the games are over, Japan has a unique plan to change this: at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, winning medallists will quite literally own a piece of Japanese… trash.
Japan has pledged to recover up to eight tons of metals from obsolete smartphones and other electronic gadgets, which will be converted into 5,000 gold, silver, and bronze medals ahead of the games, according to a press release on the Olympic Games website.
This initiative -- known as the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project -- is in part a response to the global “e-waste” crisis. Although only a tenth of the population, Japan is second to China when it comes to generating e-waste, according to UN University’s Regional E-Waste Monitor. In 2011 alone, 36.39 million mobile phones were made in Japan and only 7.62 million units -- or 20.9% -- were collected under the Mobile Recycling Network -- a network of 9,000 retail outlets that collect mobile parts.
It’s a problem across Asia, with the volume of e-waste increasing by 63% in the five years ending in 2015. Asia is also the largest manufacturer and market for EEE -- a term used to describe electrical and electronic equipment not intended for re-use. This amounted to 12.3 million tonnes in 2015 -- a weight akin to 2.4 times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Globally, the amount of e-waste is projected to grow to 49.8 million tons by 2018, with an annual growth rate of 4-5%. China alone increased its waste to 6.7 million tons -- up 107% from 2010 to 2015. Meanwhile, Hong Kong (21.7 kg) and Singapore (19.95 kg) had the highest average e-waste generation per capita in the region in 2015.
An Urban Mine
What happens to discarded mobile phones when consumers trade up for newer, slicker gadgets?
“A majority of used mobile phones are exported to other countries, including Hong Kong, for second-hand markets and/or refurbishment,” says Shunichi Honda, Programme Officer at UN Environment in Japan. The rest are tossed into drawers, destined to end up at landfill sites, or -- and this is the most pernicious case of all -- exported to countries, where those eager to strip e-waste of its raw materials may engage in “backyard burning.”
“Many of manual dismantling and recycling processes in some Asian and African countries are toxic to human health and the environment, such as open burning, incineration without any protective measures, open dumping, etc.,” says Honda.
There’s little doubt that discarded tablets, mobile phones, and laptops represent a treasure trove of precious materials. An EPA report reveals that “the metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold, and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the United States.”
And this is exactly what Tokyo’s 2020 Medal Project is attempting to salvage. Out of the eight tons it has pledged to recycle, it aims to collect 40 kg of gold, 4,920 kg of silver, and 2,944 kg of bronze. And so far, the project has been a measured success. At the end of August this year, telecom giant NTT Docomo -- a partner in the project -- collected approximately 1,300,000 used mobile phones.
Consumers are also increasingly choosing to turn in their old phones to participate in manufacturer’s buyback or trade-in programs -- arguably one of the more sustainable options. For Apple products, a Bloomberg investigation reveals that the hazardous waste from a shredded iPhone is either stored at a licensed facility or reincarnated as aluminium window frames and furniture or glass tiles.
While sustainability may be a key concern, another factor driving manufacturers to reconsider how they handle e-waste is that they’re facing mounting material pressures.
“Increasingly, it’s not just because of legislative pressure, but also material pressure. There are shortages in several of the raw materials that are critical to a mobile phone or lithium mine battery -- and the best mine for that is our own products,” says Deepali Khetriwal, research associate at the United Nations University.
Governments are also catching up from a legislative point of view -- with some countries in East and Southeast Asia further ahead than others in implementing extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation. But owing to the fact that e-waste is still by and large a relatively recent waste stream -- not to mention one around which collecting data is difficult -- there are certainly challenges. For one, Asia remains a primary dumping grounds for the export of discarded and end-of-life materials from other countries, even with the enactment of the Basel Convention, which aims to curtail the illegal transboundary movement of hazardous e-waste and second-hand electronics.
“Asia is kind of at this inflection point where we see the huge amount of economic value and market opportunity in recycling. There are some other drivers, but the foremost one is legislation,” says Khetriwal.