Big Tech Needs to Do More

Men disassemble electronics in Ghana, in May 2019 (Photo by Christian Thompson/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

E-waste is one of the largest environmental problems the world faces. The amount of electronics that are disposed of each year is not fully quantified, but its impact is, in ever-accelerating climate change. As technology evolves, it exacerbates the problem with myriad new products. But it also can help with solutions. 

When we’re talking about e-waste, we’re talking about items large and small, from a tiny outdated iPod found in the back of a drawer that gets tossed in the trash to a roomful of servers that have reached the end of their usefulness and are sent off for recycling. Whether these items are improperly sent to landfills or are properly processed so their parts can be reused, their disposal takes a toxic toll on the Earth and the humans who inhabit it.

Potential e-waste is all around you: the screen you’re reading this on, the tablet you use to stream shows, the smart washing machine in your basement. It’s the copiers and servers in your workplace. And it’s the very equipment that’s powering the internet, from its sources to the router that’s delivering this news to you. 

The Global E-waste Monitor 2020

Image: Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

The UN leads the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership, which attempts to track the amount of e-waste in the world. It puts e-waste into six categories: temperature-exchange equipment (refrigerators, air conditioners), screens and monitors, lamps, large equipment (washing machines, copiers), small equipment (cameras, smart speakers), and small IT and telecommunications equipment (phones, routers). So much fits in these categories, and so much of it overwhelms landfills.

The Current State of E-Waste

The amount of e-waste is incalculable, because it’s undocumented. Electronics are embedded in every facet of our lives, but they have short life cycles. And when the time comes to replace a product, it is rarely disposed of in a way that would limit its impact on the environment, despite the fact that 71% of the world’s population is governed by some form of e-waste legislation. 

When faced with throwing something in the trash or having to…