Many were quick to point out COVID-19's positive environmental impact in the early days of lockdown. As traffic declined and factories slowed, it seemed like the world was finally healing. Still, the pandemic may not be beneficial for the environment, thanks to growing threats like e-waste.
E-waste, short for "electronic waste," refers to all the computer parts people throw away. Things like circuit boards and wires can leak toxic metals and chemicals into the environment if improperly recycled. Since the world only recycles 20 percent of its electronic waste, that's a problem.
In 2019, the world generated a record-breaking 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste. The COVID-19 pandemic could result in an even larger sum in a few years. Here's a closer look.
A Coming Wave of Electronic Waste
Social distancing regulations have led to an unprecedented period of electronics adoption. As more people work from home and stay indoors, the number of devices they use rises. Tech adoption is soaring, and all these electronics will eventually become obsolete or unnecessary.
According to an e-waste recycling insider, electronic waste won't increase in the short and mid-term. Right now, people are acquiring more devices, not throwing them away. As these technologies come to the end of their life cycles, though, this will cause a surge in e-waste.
Since there's more tech in use right now, waste levels will rise if turnover rates remain the same. PC sales have climbed by 2.8 percent over 2019 levels, so if turnover rates continue, it'll mean a 2.8 percent increase in computer waste. That doesn't sound like much, but 2.8 percent of 2019's figures adds up to 1.5 million metric tons of additional waste.
Strain on the Recycling Workforce
COVID-19 is also making things difficult for the e-recycling industry. Recycling this type of waste typically requires a licensed company offering a certificate of recycling or destruction. These businesses will see more demand in the future, but right now, they're struggling.
While recycling companies are an essential service in most areas, they still face cutbacks. Dwindling demand and social distancing requirements have led to a reduced workforce. If these businesses can't recover by the time e-waste starts to surge, this could lead to a recycling deficit.
The e-recycling industry may not be equipped to handle the post-COVID surge. In the short term, factors like disrupted logistics chains make it more difficult for them to work normally.
Preparing for Post-COVID E-Waste Management
Considering these risks, companies should pay more attention to their e-waste management. Adopting new technology can be a lifesaver for a business, and there's a safe way to upgrade. Instead of throwing old equipment away, companies can send it to a licensed e-recycler.
Some of these businesses can even refurbish and upgrade old tech, extending its life. On top of reducing a company's waste, these options will also help struggling recycling businesses. If organizations adopt these practices now, they can prepare for the post-COVID electronics waste surge.
The type of technology a company adopts also matters. Turning to cloud-based systems instead of new hardware can enable businesses to use legacy equipment longer. That way, they can use newer tools without disposing of older tech.
COVID-19 Affects More Than Some May Realize
The pandemic will affect far more than just public health. Recycling and a public health crisis may not seem related at first, but COVID-19 could considerably impact electronic waste. There are likely more unforeseen consequences that will emerge as the pandemic continues, too.
E-waste was already a problem before the pandemic, but if businesses aren't careful, it could get worse. With thoughtful tech adoption and recycling, the world can avoid a computer waste surge. If tech usage continues as usual, though, it could be bad news for the environment.