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UN report reveals less than a quarter of the world's e-waste is being recycled

The world produced over 137 billion pounds of e-waste in 2023, according to a recent report from the United Nations. To put that number into reference, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier weighs 100,000 tons.

The world produced over 685 fully-loaded Nimitz-class aircraft carriers worth of e-waste in 2023.

Less than a quarter of it was documented as being properly recycled in the UN report, which means valuable materials including precious metals ended up in landfills around the world. In some countries, people make a living scavenging landfills for electronic components to sell.

Arizona has become somewhat of a tech hub in recent years - Intel has chip factories in the Valley, and TSMC is working on its own, bolstered by the Biden Administration’s CHIPS Act.

But that’s not all. Copper, used as an electrical conductor, is one of Arizona’s key exports and one of its Five Cs. And the state is also home to vast amounts of lithium, used in rechargeable batteries.

An ever-increasing demand for more technology means that the demand for these valuable resources will increase, especially if more e-waste is being thrown out instead of recycled.

Professor Dwarak Ravikumar of ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment says that the recycling of e-waste is important because it allows for what he calls a "circular economy," which is created when device manufacturers take back old devices and use the materials to produce new ones rather than sending them to landfills, where certain materials can be toxic for the environment.

"If e-waste is not managed properly, you can have a lot of problematic materials which are found in e-waste - for example, heavy metals and other toxic materials leach into the environment if they’re not properly managed and especially if they’re not properly dispersed."

Ravikumar stressed the importance of the circular economy not just because of the environmental harm that can be caused, but also because it represents economic opportunities that are being missed out on:

"On the positive side, we are missing out on opportunities to create jobs, to create an economy focused on recycling and recirculating materials in the economy."

And while a circular economy is beneficial for the economy and for the environment, it’s also beneficial for a less obvious reason: the mining of materials such as copper and lithium can be extremely toxic if not handled properly and safely, something that has concerned some Arizona residents.

ASU's Howard Center for Investigative Journalism covered the effects of lithium mining in the Southwest in 2023, showing the effects it can have on the environment and on tribal communities. As of January 2024, there were nine proposed lithium mines in Arizona alone, and many more elsewhere.

In other countries, the procurement of some materials can be hazardous and unethical, says Ravikumar.

“A great example of this is cobalt,” he said, “It comes from central Africa where there are reports of violations of environmental practices or environmental regulations. And they’re not mined in the most friendly or safe manner for human beings. Labor practices are not enforced.”

Ravikumar also spoke about the Right To Repair movement, saying that a lot of modern electronics are designed to be used and then thrown away, not repaired. Right To Repair is a movement that has gained ground in the United States in recent years, with some states passing laws mandating companies to have and offer replacement parts and manuals for their devices.

He also said he believes in what he calls “design for circularity,” where products are designed for both repairability and to be easily recycled at the end of their useful life.

Another way to support the circular economy and help keep devices out of landfills, said Ravikumar, is to support companies that do their best to be sustainable.

“One great way of supporting a circular economy as an individual is to buy products from companies that have a closed supply chain. ... It’s a win-win for everybody. It’s a win for the environment. It’s a win in terms of a good business practice makes financial sense.”

Mobile providers and other companies in the United States often offer trade-in programs, and some — like Apple and Best Buy — will recycle old devices for free to ensure they’re disposed of properly.

Overall, Ravikumar said sustainable practices and a focus on a circular economy for devices is paramount for reducing the production of e-waste.

“A circular economy makes economic sense, environmental sense for the residents of Arizona. And not only that, it will have broader implications and broader benefits beyond Arizona.”

Nate Engle was an intern at KJZZ in 2024.