Every year, humanity generates tens of millions of tons of electronic waste, or e-waste — a veritable tsunami of toxic garbage that the United Nations has described as the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. Now, a new analysis has found that the world’s e-waste junkyards will be getting a slight reprieve due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As with other seemingly positive environmental side effects of the coronavirus, this one’s nothing to celebrate.
Global sales of electronics and electrical equipment took a hit during the first three quarters of 2020, according to a U.N. report published last week. As a result, more than 5 million tons of future e-waste were avoided during that time period. However, just as air pollution came roaring back as lockdowns eased and atmospheric carbon levels climbed to record highs despite a record drop in emissions last year, there are already signs that the e-waste slowdown will be temporary. Rather than indicating a shift toward a more sustainable relationship with our technology, the data highlights a worsening “digital divide” between technological haves and have-nots.
“It is a reduction, though it is not good for the world,” Kees Baldé, a senior program officer at United Nations University and a co-author of the report, said of the e-waste drop.
E-waste, which by the U.N.’s definition encompasses everything from discarded refrigerators and electric ovens to spent consumer electronics, has grown rapidly in recent years as more people in developing nations gain access to modern technology, product life cycles become shorter, and device repair becomes more difficult. Between 2014 and 2019, the world’s e-waste footprint grew from 49 million to nearly 60 million tons a year. That’s roughly 10 Great Pyramids of Gizas’ worth of pluggable and battery-powered trash each year — and the digital deluge is only expected to keep growing.
But with the pandemic upending how people around the world live and work, in addition to disrupting global supply chains, Baldé and his co-author Ruediger Kuehr had a hunch that e-waste trends might be disrupted as well. To find out, the researchers pulled together national data on the total weight of electronics placed on the market last year, as well as monthly data on electronics import trends. For 50 countries where sufficient data was available, they compared electronics consumption in the first three quarters of 2020 to expected consumption based on historic trends.
The findings were surprising. Baldé says he expected to see a rise in total electronics sales last year fueled by increased demand for devices to work and learn remotely. But while global sales of small electronic devices like cell phones, laptops, and gaming consoles did in fact rise due to COVID-19, this was more than compensated by declining sales of larger equipment, including desktop monitors, TVs, lamps, and home appliances. Globally, the researchers estimate that fewer sales of these heavier electronic devices will reduce future e-waste production by 5.4 million tons, or 6.4 percent, compared with a world in which the pandemic never happened and electronics consumption grew significantly last year.
But this is hardly a cause for celebration, particularly when you look at who bought less stuff. High-income countries in North America and Europe, the researchers found, only saw a 5 percent dip in overall electronics sales. These were also the countries where sales of small electronic devices like laptops went up, driving the overall trend. People living in lower income nations in the Global South, meanwhile, bought 30 percent fewer electronics overall, including fewer cell phones and laptops.
Baldé believes is yet another indicator that the digital divide — the gap in access to technology between the rich and the poor — became more severe during the pandemic. Over the past year, many news articles and reports have highlighted the fact that wealthy communities had greater access to the digital tools and technologies needed to work and learn remotely during the pandemic, including hardware and high-speed internet. The new e-waste report, Baldé says, provides “another sort of evidence that the digital divide is getting worse” not just within countries like the U.S., but globally.
It’s important to note that while lower electronics sales point to a future decline in global e-waste, they don’t tell us anything about how the pandemic has impacted e-waste management. Prior to COVID-19, the U.N. estimated that less than 20 percent of e-waste was being formally collected for recycling. With major cities and electronics retailers suspending e-waste collection during the pandemic and electronics recycling facilities struggling to stay open while adhering to public health guidelines, the picture from the past year and a half could look very different, both regionally and globally.
“The disruption across the entire supply chain has also been in our industry,” Amanda LaGrange, CEO of the Minnesota-based electronics recycling company Tech Dump, told Grist. (Editor’s note: LaGrange was selected as Grist 50 Fixer this year.)
LaGrange says that while many e-waste businesses have struggled with staffing issues during the pandemic, Tech Dump and others have also seen “a huge increase in the number of people coming in and dropping off electronics.” She suspects this is related to people spending more time at home and “needing to get rid of what we call the pile of denial,” or old electronics that have been collecting dust in closets. As folks return to their offices in the coming months, LaGrange is expecting a new surge of equipment from business IT managers who put off recycling old computers for the past year.
“We anticipate a surge on the business side over the past year, and we’ve been riding the surge on the consumer side,” LaGrange said. If there’s a future decline in e-waste volumes due to sluggish sales of certains types of electronics in 2020, those who actually handle electronic scrap might not see it for years.
Josh Lepawsky, a geographer at Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies electronic waste, suspects that any pandemic-fueled drop in electronic trash will be “a blip” compared with the overall trend of rising consumption of technology. Baldé agrees, noting that his team is already seeing evidence of a rebound effect in wealthier countries, where electronics sales were up significantly in the third quarter of 2020 compared with the first two. If anything, this trend has continued to intensify: In the U.S., demand for personal computers rose 73 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same period last year, according to the market research firm Canalys.
A pandemic-driven e-waste dip may give nations “a little bit of breathing space” to strengthen their recycling infrastructure, Baldé said. “But it’s not a lot of oxygen.”