The IT and consumer electronics sectors are sectors with a huge environmental impact. That's why these sectors are part of Hegdehog's focus sectors. E-waste, electronic devices, when no longer in use, is one of the big challenges in these sectors. Globally, e-waste is even the fastest-growing waste stream, and unfortunately, only 17% of all e-waste is correctly recycled. E-waste, therefore, has a massive impact on the environment. In this article, we'll discuss what e-waste is, why it has such a high environmental impact, and how you can properly manage your e-waste (or that of your organisation).
What is e-waste
Take a moment to think about how many electronic devices you have lying around in your home. Probably more than you initially thought. You're not alone; an average Dutch household has as many as 131 electronic devices! And how many of these devices are you currently still using? It's estimated that all Dutch households together have 846 million electronic devices in their homes, of which 178 million are no longer in use, and 21 million are broken. (1)
These broken or discarded devices are collectively known as e-waste, short for Electronic Waste. E-waste consists of electronic devices (with a battery or plug), that are no longer in use and have been discarded. Think of items such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets, televisions, as well as household appliances like vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances, and thermostats. Globally, e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream, with an estimated volume of 50 million metric tons (50,000,000,000 kilograms) in 2023 alone.
This enormous amount of e-waste is a burden for the environment. Large quantities of e-waste are often shipped abroad, sometimes to countries lacking the means to properly and safely process these waste streams. Substances like mercury, arsenic, and various chemical flame retardants end up in the environment through landfills or storage sites, with all the associated environmental and health consequences for the local population.
Only 17% of all e-waste worldwide is correctly recycled. This is a waste because electronic devices contain valuable materials like gold, silver, copper, palladium, and more. The value of all materials in e-waste worldwide is estimated to be over $60 billion. (2)
Environmental impact of e-waste
However, when e-waste is not correctly recycled, the loss is not only limited to financial value. From an environmental perspective, a lot is also at stake. The extraction of the raw materials used in electronic devices has a significant impact on the environment The demand for these raw materials is constantly rising, and various sectors are competing heavily for them. Let's zoom in on a specific type of raw material found in electronic devices, including e-waste: rare earth metals. (3)
Usage of rare earth metals
What do headphones, jet engines, wind turbines, and microchips have in common? They all contain rare earth metals. These metals are also found in many other products, such as LED lights, game consoles, MRI scanners and satellites. Rare earth metals are therefore almost indispensable to make a wide range of products work. However, they are also as the name suggests, rare or more accurately, challenging to extract and process. We'll delve into this further.
What are rare earth metals
The "rare earth metals" are a group of 17 different chemical elements, that fall into the lanthanide series of the periodic table of elements. These metals have names like scandium (Sc), yttrium (Y), ytterbium (Yb), and lutetium (Lu). These metals have specific properties that are highly useful in various end products.
Let's mention a few of these properties, and you'll understand why these metals play such a significant role in electrical and IT devices:
- Magnetic Properties: Some lanthanide elements, such as neodymium and samarium, possess exceptional magnetic properties. They are used in the production of strong permanent magnets used in electric motors, generators, speakers, and even in hard drives and magnetic cooling technology.
- Luminescent Properties: Europium and terbium are used to produce phosphors used in the manufacturing of television and computer monitor screens, as well as in energy-efficient fluorescent lamps.
- Electronic Properties: Neodymium and praseodymium are used in certain types of fiber amplifiers and lasers. They have the property of emitting light at specific wavelengths, which is crucial for telecommunications and medical applications.
Why are these metals "rare"?
These metals can be extracted from various locations around the world. They are typically found in igneous rocks, which were once molten magma. One of these metals is called Dysprosium, which is Greek for "inaccessible." This name directly reflects the challenge associated with these metals.
There are several factors that make the extraction of these materials difficult:
- Rarity in the Earth's Crust: Although these metals are referred to as "rare," they are not rare in an absolute sense. For example, the rarest rare earth metal, Thulium, is still 100 times more abundant than gold. So, rare earth metals do occur in the Earth's crust, but usually in very low concentrations. This means that extracting and isolating pure rare earth metals from ore sources is a complex and costly process.
- Mix with Other Metals: Rare earth metals are dispersed throughout the Earth's crust and are often mixed with other minerals. You don't typically find a "vein" of these metals, as you might with iron or copper. This makes mining and extracting rare earth metals labor-intensive and this necessitates advanced mining and purification processes.
- Environmental Impact of Extraction: The mining and processing of rare earth metals have a significant environmental impact. Chemical solvents are used to separate the metals from other elements. Large amounts of waste are generated, and some radioactive materials are released during the extraction and processing of rare earth metals. Additionally, mining operations leave behind massive craters in the landscape, further impacting the environment.
- Geographic Concentration: While rare earth metals can be found in various parts of the world, both mining and processing (refining) have primarily concentrated in China. In 2022, for example, China accounted for 70% of global rare earth metal production, and the processing of these materials is also predominantly done in China. This global concentration has made many countries dependent on China, potentially jeopardizing the availability of these materials. In 2010, China even restricted Japan's access to rare earth metals during a fisheries-related conflict between the two countries.
- Diverse Applications: The fact that rare earth metals play a crucial role in a wide range of end products has driven enormous demand for these metals. As mentioned earlier, rare earth metals are used in many modern technologies including electronics, wind turbines, electric vehicle batteries, and military applications. The demand from various sectors, coupled with the dependence on these metals, has significantly increased their strategic and economic value. With the energy transition, it's expected that we will need five times more rare earth metals in 2030 than we do now. The growing demand, combined with the difficulty in extracting these metals, further exacerbates their "rarity."
What do you do with your devices & e-waste?
Considering all the points mentioned above, it's a shame when e-waste is not (properly) recycled. It's simply not sustainable to leave materials with such a high environmental impact un-used in your closet. Moreover, these materials play a crucial role in global sustainability efforts; they are indispensable in electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, wind turbines se they are in high demand for the energy transition. (4)
By recycling your discarded electronic devices, or reusing them if you no longer need them, you contribute to ensuring that the rare metals and other materials find new purposes.
Always drop off broken devices at an environmental collection point or drop-off location. Many supermarkets accept small appliances and smartphones for recycling. Often, when purchasing a new device, you can return your old one.
Check this website for more information on where to drop off specific types of devices in the Netherlands: https://www.milieucentraal.nl/minder-afval/afval-scheiden/apparaten-en-elektra/
Sustainability tips device use
Here are some more tips for sustainable handling of your electronic and IT devices:
- Choose Refurbished: When buying a new device, consider choosing a refurbished one. Refurbished devices are used items that have been thoroughly inspected and, if necessary, repaired. This extends the lifespan of the devices. Additionally, refurbished devices are often significantly cheaper than brand new ones, with little to no difference in quality.
- Reuse: Ensure that working devices you no longer need find new applications elsewhere. Give them away, sell them, lend them to others, and so on. It's a shame to let a perfectly functional device sit unused.
- Lease Instead of Buying: You don't necessarily have to buy a device to use it. Many electronic devices can be borrowed, leased, or used for a certain period (such as a phone included with your phone plan). Afterward, you return the device, and the provider ensures it can be used by another person or is properly recycled.
- Purchase Only What You Need: Every device you buy has an environmental impact, both in production and use. Be mindful of what devices you truly need to minimize unnecessary purchases.
- Conserve Power During Use: Turn off devices you're not using, adjust screen brightness and volume levels to reasonable levels, and unplug chargers when they're not in use. Chargers left plugged in can still consume electricity, resulting in what is known as "phantom" or "standby" power usage. In the Netherlands, this can cost an average household around 450 kWh per year, which is approximately €100 worth of electricity.
These practices help reduce the environmental footprint associated with your electronic and IT devices.
Read more on this topic in our knowledgebase article The environmental impact of online behavior.
Sustainable regulations for the IT sector
Digital Product Passport
There are already significant developments going on in the IT sector to promote sustainability. The EU is also taking steps to strengthen this through regulations. One example is the Digital Product Passport (DPP), a label that will become mandatory for all products placed on the EU market. This includes both products produced within the EU and those imported into the EU.
The Digital Product Passport is a label attached to the product, providing detailed environmental information throughout the product's entire life cycle. This product label will be accessible to anyone interested in information about the product's sustainability, including consumers, customers, or government agencies.
The goal of this label is to increase transparency and traceability of products and components, allowing them to be designed and used in a circular and sustainable manner. It also serves as a means to combat greenwashing: by mandating transparency about the origin of a product's materials, it becomes more difficult to make false or unwarranted sustainability claims.
The introduction of digital product passports is expected after the final approval of the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR) by the European Commission in 2024. Initially, this passport will be mandatory in the following three product categories, starting in 2026:
- Consumer electronics
Lateron, other product categories will follow, including plastics, construction materials, furniture, and chemicals. The only sectors exempt from this label requirement are food, animal feed, and pharmaceuticals.(7)
Read more in our knowledge base article EU Digital Productpassport: sustainable products
Another upcoming legislations is the CSRD (corporate sustainability reporting directive). This is a legislation introduced by the European Union, to strengthen and expand the requirements for corporate sustainability reporting. Building on the existing Non-Financial Reporting Directive (NFRD), the CSRD will significantly enhance the scope and quality of non-financial disclosures. It aims to promote transparency, accountability, and sustainable practices across all European companies.
The first companies have to meet the CSRD legislations starting from 2025. So, these companies have to start monitoring their impact in 2024, otherwise they have nothing to report on. Which companies will have to meet the CSRD first? That are the organisations that:
- Have more than 250 employees
-Have a turnover that exceeds €40 million
-Have a balance sheet that exceeds €20 million
And from 2027 on, all EU-based companies (+ 10 employees) have to report according to the CSRD.
Our tip; don’t let the CSDR become something you have to fix last minute. That is a formula for big stress, and high costs. Start early on working towards this shift in reporting. The earlier the better. Contact us if you want some help or inspiration. Read our article about the CSRD to find out more about CSDR, the implementation of this legislation and some first tips to get started:
LCA for IT organisations
Are you an IT organisation, and do you want to take steps towards sustainability? A good way to start is by assessing the environmental impact of your products or organisation. Because only when you know this impact, you can start minimising this impact. A Life Cycle Assessment, LCA, will give you all the insights you need.
Read more about LCA's in our article Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) -The ultimate guide for beginners.
A LCA is interesting for IT organisations because it will provide you with information about:
- Environmental Responsibility: LCA’s help organisations assess the environmental impact of their products and services throughout their entire lifecycle. This is crucial in an era where environmental sustainability is a top concern. IT companies can use LCA to identify areas where they can reduce their carbon footprint, minimise resource consumption, and reduce waste.
- Regulatory Compliance: Many governments and regulatory bodies are imposing stricter environmental regulations and standards. LCA can help IT organisations ensure compliance with these regulations, avoiding legal and financial penalties.
- Product Improvement: LCA allows IT companies to identify opportunities for product improvement. By analyzing the entire lifecycle of a product, organisations can find ways to make their products more energy-efficient, reduce emissions, and use fewer resources.
- Cost Reduction: LCA can uncover inefficiencies in the production and supply chain processes. By optimizing these processes, organisations can reduce costs associated with resource use, energy consumption, and waste disposal.
- Supply Chain Sustainability: IT companies often rely on complex supply chains that span the globe. LCA can be used to assess the environmental impact of the entire supply chain, helping organisations choose more sustainable suppliers and partners.
- Reporting and Transparency: Increasingly, investors and stakeholders are interested in a company's sustainability efforts. LCA provides a data-driven approach to report on environmental performance, enhancing transparency and accountability.
- Risk Management: Environmental issues can pose risks to a company's reputation and operations. By conducting LCAs and proactively addressing environmental concerns, IT organisations can mitigate these risks and protect their brand image.
- Marketing and Branding: Positive environmental performance can be leveraged in marketing and branding efforts. Highlighting the results of LCA studies can help organisations appeal to environmentally conscious consumers.
In summary, Life Cycle Assessments is interesting for organisations in the IT sector because it helps them become more environmentally responsible, comply with regulations, reduce costs, gain a competitive advantage, and improve their overall sustainability performance, all of which are critical in today's business landscape.
Do you want to take steps towards sustainability? IT is one of our focus sectors and we guided already many organisations here towards sustainability.
Please reach out to us, and let's talk about what steps will fit you and your organisation.