We Need to Do Something About Our Growing E-Waste Problem

Two years ago, SoftBank Group Co. CEO Masayoshi Son predicted that there will be a trillion connected devices in the world and orbiting the planet within the next two decades. Shortly after his prediction was made public, Son invested in Arm Holdings, a chip-design company, which is profiting from increased demand for battery-sipping chips meant for low-compute jobs. The firm’s microcomputers can be found inside watches, rings, and industrial equipment.

As more products become “smart” and are given capabilities to perform tasks, retain information, and more, we are also adding to e-waste – a phrase that refers to products that can be connected to the Internet and are tossed out to take up space in landfills. The UN found that people generated 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste globally in 2016, and expects that to grow to 52.2 million metric tons by 2021.

Source: SciDev

The big problems here are that we are adding semiconductors to devices that didn’t have them before and we are shortening the lifespan of these devices by up to a decade. Products that once lasted 15 years or so now need to be replaced about every five years. Many of these devices also die once their batteries run out of life.

Some companies have fallen short

Sports company Wilson designed a basketball with Bluetooth capabilities to measure power behind shots made. The issue is that the battery inside the gadget cannot be replaced. Doing so could compromise the integrity of the material on the outside of the baseball. Instead, it’s deemed useless once the battery dies.

Source: Wilson

Tile, a company that makes small trackers powered by Bluetooth, used to allow customers to ship old ones back to the manufacturer for a discount on new ones. The company would then dispose of the old trackers itself so the customer didn’t have to and the amount of e-waste could be slightly lessened. Now, though, the company encourages customers to dispose of the tiles on their own, which could lead to even more filling up our junk drawers or landfills with nowhere else to go.

Others are at least trying something new

Spire, who develops a wearable to monitor breathing and activity levels with a battery that lasts about 18 months, has put a little more effort into the design of its IoT product. Each of the components inside the device’s flat, 5.3-by-3.2-centimeter enclosure are designed to be easily taken apart for recycling. CEO John Palley says it was a challenge to find glues that would allow the wearable to be machine-washed. Making something waterproof and easy to disassemble takes a lot of engineering.

Source: Integrated Building Systems

Many developers of IoT products don’t spend much time in the engineering department when it comes to making the battery replaceable or at the very least easily recyclable. That being said, some are at least putting together recycling initiatives to cut back on e-waste. PC-maker Dell uses 3,000 kilograms of gold in its computers and servers each year, and some of that is recycled from other Dell products.

As we continue to place these chips and batteries into more devices, someone needs to begin doing their research and finding solutions to e-waste problems. If we can be innovative with our smart gadgets, why can’t we find a way to easily dispose of or recycle them without harming the environment?

If you have any IoT devices that you need to dispose of properly, use Waste Management’s guide to find your nearest recycling location.