Sustainability is not a buzzword anymore, however, the concept of sustainability remains abstract and complex if it lacks context to make it relatable to people’s day-to-day experience. Though everyone may have different understandings and interpretations of sustainability, we all know that the goal is to minimize negative environmental impact resulting from human activities. This explains why food & beverage, pharmaceutical and apparel industries are taking a lead in sustainability and supply chain transparency.

For electronic products, sustainability will never come easy due, in part, to the long and complex supply chain in the electronics industry and the fact that people do not feel the impact from e-waste in their daily life. Both manufacturers and end customers do not have sufficient motive to diligently and proactively drive the sustainability development in this industry.

The mindset that needs to be embraced is that improving sustainability is both an imperative and urgent initiative. Sustainability practices need to be addressed and implemented along the whole supply chain.

This blog mainly discusses one aspect of sustainability, e-waste.

E-waste is threatening the global ecosystem and human health

With booming electronics manufacturing and more consumer electronic purchases, we see the increase of electronic waste (E-waste). The Global E-Waste Monitor 2014 reported that, worldwide, e-waste had increased 35% in the previous 6 years and predicted that it would reach 45.7 million metric tons in 2016.

Currently only 13% of those 45.7 million tons are recycled, mostly in developing countries. The majority of e-waste is dumped from developed countries to underdeveloped and developing ones.

Electronic products contain thousands of components made of harmful chemicals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, beryllium, antimony, polyvinyl chlorides (PVC), brominated flame retardants, and phthalates. This is why e-waste is a big threat to the environment and to human health.

Known and suspected routes of e-waste dumping (University of Northampton), from International Labour Office’s ‘The global impact of e-waste’ report.

As shown in the map of e-waste dumping routes, African and Asian countries such as Nigeria, China, Pakistan, India and Thailand are turning into illegal e-waste hubs. The recycling processes in these developing countries are very primitive, posing health threats to local workers and the environment.

Guiyu, a village in eastern Guangdong province known as the e-waste capital of the world, is now a ghost town. Water there is black and acidic, children have shockingly elevated lead levels and the fumes of chemicals hang heavy in the air. Toxic chemicals in e-waste have injured workers and local residents’ health. Additionally, pollutants in the air, water and soil have devastated nearby farmland.

Though the e-waste issue is more serious in these emerging countries, the environmental and health impact is global.Ironically, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan play an important role as the top milled rice exporters as well as electronics graveyards.

Developed countries dump e-waste to these countries. Through primitive recycling processes, waste gas and water are discharged without sufficient treatment thereby contaminating soil, water and air in these developing countries. In return, the rice grain grown in polluted areas contains heavy metals. Developed countries then import rice from these major exporters, supplying their domestic market. A report from the American Chemical Society reveals that rice imported to the U.S. contains 120 times the provisional total tolerable intake (PTTI) of lead levels set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The U.S. imports rice majorly from Italy, Bhutan, Israel, Thailand, China and India; all samples were found to have levels of lead significantly higher than FDA standards.

Because of the deep globalization and interactions among countries, e-waste is an issue that we all are facing.

We cannot leave e-waste issue to the next generation

Firstly, the humongous amount of e-waste generated each year doesn’t give us time to wait until the next generation.

Secondly, our longevity increases. In the book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari said, “In the twentieth century we have almost doubled life expectancy from forty to seventy, so in the twenty-first century we should at least be able to double it again to 150.” If we don’t tackle this issue now, we will suffer from its serious consequences for a long time.

To decrease the negative effects from e-waste, we can either produce less of it or find alternatives to replace current toxic substances in electronics products.

  1. Produce less e-waste

Increase the quality of both production and product, generating less e-waste during production and prolonging the lifecycle of final products.

Modular design, which Fairphone uses, gives end customers the ability to open the phone and replace only the defective parts. This is a departure from other cell phones where, when even just one fuse is broken, customers must either incur high expense to replace it or dispose of the phone entirely.

2. Produce safe products in a safe way

Major electronics companies should take initiatives to stop using hazardous chemicals and make products safer and easier to recycle. ROHS and REACH are the first step. Cooperation from every government is crucial to promote safe electronics products.

3. Make companies responsible for recycling or disposal of sold products

All manufacturing companies must take full responsibility for the whole lifecycle of their products, from manufacturing to safe recycling or disposal. Apple is a pioneer in this field; its Liam robot can take apart an iPhoneâ for recycling. According to Mashable, Liam is able to disassemble 350 iPhones per hour, which adds up to 1.2 million recycled phones every year. While impressive, this is still a small fraction of the more than 231 million phones Apple sold in 2015. More effort is required to make significant progress.

Solving e-waste issue requires joint effort from everyone on the planet, especially manufacturing companies, end customers and governments. No one wants to enjoy the convenience brought from electronics devices at the cost of our world. Sustainability is a must-have not a nice-to-have.

Han Di is a contributor at the operational and strategic levels in supply chain development and is a Supply Chain Specialist at Silecta Inc., a supply chain services company.