Visualizing The World’s E-Waste Problem

Every day, we throw out an enormous amount of precious metals that are hiding inside our old electronics.

Electronics supply chains have become a popular topic of discussion over the past few years, mainly because of Apple’s labor and environmental issues in its factories. But the other end of the supply chain–what happens after electronics are tossed in the trash–isn’t talked about nearly as much. We’re as guilty of that as anyone. And yet, e-waste is a really, really big deal.

The infographic from fonebank breaks the problem down in stark terms: over 130 million cell phones are tossed in the trash every year in the U.S. (that figure is from 2010; the number may be higher now), and 17,000 tons of e-waste are thrown away or recycled every day. The vast majority of our e-waste is thrown in the garbage, even though it contains valuable materials that can be reused.

Believe it or not, the U.S. is actually better than most other countries at recycling e-waste. Only the U.S., U.K., and Spain reach a 15% recycling rate–other countries fall way behind, largely because of a lack of easy recycling options.

The number of electronics purchased worldwide is growing at a rapid clip, especially on the smartphone front. This infographic doesn’t go into the growth of so-called feature phones, but those are quickly becoming more popular as well. In developed countries, companies like Apple (yes, it deserves to be called out, especially now that it’s the biggest phone seller in the U.S.) that constantly refresh their products feed the gadget turnover cycle.

There are a lot of materials to be mined from our dead electronics, if only we’d recycle them. One million mobile phones can yield 9 kilograms of palladium, 24 kilograms of gold, 250 kilograms of silver, and 9,000 kilograms of copper. Recycling all those materials have an added benefit: It’s much less energy-intensive to recycle metals than to mine new ones. Plus, recycling creates new jobs (in the recycling industry).

The infographic fails to mention the dismal conditions that sometimes plague e-waste recycling operations–that’s important to keep in mind when discussing how we should increase recycling rates. But it’s not something that should discourage recycling; recycling centers are just another piece of the electronics supply chain that need to be cleaned up.

Source: Ariel Schwartz, Feb. 13, 2013

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