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Has Covid-19 accelerated the 50 million ton e-waste crisis?

communication technology
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

Office spaces have turned into ghost towns during the pandemic - even thinking about them hits people with the nostalgia of what working life used to be.

In fact, with 60 percent of businesses in Europe planning to allow employees to work from home in the future, the typical office 9 to 5 may be a thing of the past.

Many have become used to their new business-from-home environment, quite literally picking up their laptops and second screens from the office and carrying on as usual.

But what about the rest of the equipment that didn’t make the journey home? Are desktop PCs redundant now we all have laptops? What has happened to servers and storage systems as businesses suddenly shifted to the Cloud?

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic we were generating 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste (e-waste) globally every year, but with large volumes of technology no longer deemed necessary and working from home here to stay, businesses have a bigger responsibility than ever to use and dispose of IT sustainably.

The environmental impact of working from home

When employees across Europe shifted to remote working, almost one third (29 percent) of office desktop PCs were abandoned overnight. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of PCs are not expected to be required over the next year.

The problem is that while companies are righty acquiring more technology to help bridge the mobility gap, there’s still confusion about how to dispose of old devices responsibly.

We know that 84 percent of companies purchased additional hardware for employees to work from home during the pandemic, with IT investments switching focus to support a new mobile workforce. And while some businesses are starting to think about reopening offices, many will remain committed to investing in mobile technology as flexible working becomes the new normal.

But as homeworking rolls on, what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of tech devices left unused in offices up and down the country?

The picture is mixed. One in ten businesses admit to dumping old IT assets in landfill and a quarter (26 percent) will lock old or broken IT assets away until they know what to do with them. Just two-thirds (63 percent) of IT leaders currently know where their e-waste ends up.

Achieving sustainable technology practices

The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 highlights that, although Europe is the continent with the highest documented e-waste collection and recycling rate (42.5 percent), it is also the region that generates the most kg of e-waste per capita (16.2 kg).

The problem isn’t that we’re not collecting and recycling electronic waste (e-waste recycling has grown by almost 0.4 Mt per year since 2014) - it’s that current disposal rates are unable to keep pace with the global growth of e-waste, with an annual growth of almost 2 Mt within the same time period.

This is one of several reasons why the e-waste crisis is gaining political traction. And we need a new solution - it’s we started talking about reuse instead of recycling and realising the value in what we currently describe as electronic waste.

There is some positive progress underway across Europe. In the UK, the government’s ‘Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy’ report from November 2020 recommended “ambitious long-term targets for the collection, re-use and recycling of E-waste”.

In February 2021, European Parliament lawmakers agreed to a set of ambitious proposals on the EU’s circular economy action plan, including calls to introduce mandatory targets to reduce waste in several areas, including electronics.

At the same time, many businesses are now recognizing the seriousness of the issue surrounding electronic waste and implementing more sustainable IT practices.

Rather than a linear approach where technology is bought, used and disposed of, companies are turning towards a model based on the circular economy where devices are reused instead of being dumped in landfill.

Vodafone, for example, has committed to reuse, resell or recycle 100 percent of its network waste by 2025, while companies such as Schneider Electric are using circular principles in the design phase to make equipment last longer and be easier to recycle.

Businesses are in a unique position to actively put a stop to e-waste before we reach a tipping point. The adoption of a circular economy is at the heart of this opportunity, offering an opportunity that could uncover up to $4.5 trillion in economic benefits by 2030.

We have never seen as big a need or opportunity for businesses to adopt sustainable IT practices. But if we don’t start now, the damage may be too late to reverse. Educating businesses and IT leaders on the alternatives to technology consumption models and encouraging better accountability will help us overcome the tech waste crisis.

The good news is that we are beginning to see a change in attitude that may turn the tide against electronic waste. The significant shift towards more sustainable technology practices, with IT leaders spearheading their business’ charge to reduce their environmental impact, will continue to unearth the fundamental benefits of going circular, both for businesses and the planet.

Carmen Ene, CEO, 3stepIT