European Union Takes Aim At Electronics Waste

Next to plastic, the next big waste crisis has to be electronics, which are piling up in dumps around the globe even though they could be made to last longer, could be simply repaired or can be recycled. The European Union recognizes this issue and is finally doing something about it.

It used to be that an electronic device would be manufactured to last and could be easily repaired to last even longer. But as electronics have become more complex, they are also more difficult to repair. It’s also pretty clear that most manufacturers don’t build their products to last anymore. After all, if everyone could go out and purchase a microwave that lasts for 20+ years, the microwave industry would not be as profitable. It’s kinda like how a cure for cancer would cost the pharmaceutical industry billions.

And like a cancer, electronics waste is having a negative impact on the environment and is a massive waste of resources, since many precious metals are used to produce many of our devices today. There are millions of tons of these metals. In fact, there’s so much that Japan was able to manufacture all of the 2020 Olympic medals out of the bronze, silver and gold recycled from old electronics. Seriously.

Currently second after Asia with over 12 million tons of electronic waste every year, the European Union has a plan to curtail the problem by promoting repair, recycling, and longer-lasting products via regulations that will go into effect in 2021.

For example, manufacturers would have to make their products easier and cheaper to repair, either by consumers themselves or by a repair shop because sometimes frustration over not being able to replace a simple part because it’s not easily accessible or it’s priced too high forces them to purchase a brand new product. The regulation would also require the production of replacement parts for several years.

Promoting recycling would force manufacturers to take old electronics and turn the materials into new products, which could also be recycled someday.

The European Union also wants to see products in service for more years, which would have a positive effect on the environment by reducing the number of electronic devices being thrown away.

So far, the products on the list for improvement include washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers and light sources among others.

“Whether it is by fostering reparability or improving water consumption, intelligent ecodesign makes us use our resources more efficiently, bringing clear economic and environmental benefits,” European Commission Vice President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness Jyrki Katainen said in a statement.

The repair movement is also spreading across the pond to the United States.

“From the U.S. to Europe, people are demanding their right to repair things they own because they’re tired of products that are designed to break prematurely,” Chloe Fayole, program director the environmental organization ECOS said. “Enabling consumers to repair and reuse all electronic products is just common sense.”

Indeed, it may mean less profit for manufacturers who depend on products breaking down so consumers are forced to buy new ones, but it means increased savings for consumers and less waste.

“The turnover of product inventories will automatically decrease,” European Environment Bureau’s Pierre Schweitzer said. “That means that less electronic waste will be produced. But no one has tested the model yet, as to whether this will happen in practice. When we talk about a circular economy, repairing is a very efficient point at which you can save real resources and emissions — and that’s just the start. We really should highlight the positive aspects of this legislation.”

So, Europe is tackling a problem that hurts the environment and hits consumers in the wallet. These sweeping regulations would go a long way to help both. But the regulations sadly do not include cell phones and laptop computers, which are among the top devices contributing to electronics waste. If we are serious about reducing electronics waste, these devices and more should be on the list as well. With enough pressure from the public, perhaps they will be added. Because the sooner we cut back on electronics waste, the better.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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