Recycling Struggling Due to Pandemic and Electronic Waste Breaks Records

Electronic waste - Wikiwand

Electronic Waste      Photo: Wikiwand

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused turmoil in recycling programs and markets for recycled goods.  According to the recycling industry publication Waste Dive, dozens of curbside recycling programs have experienced prolonged suspensions over the past several years, but a full one-third of these suspensions have begun since the pandemic hit.  As The Conversation explained, many of the “new staples of pandemic life are made from plastics that are simply not worth recycling if there are any other disposal options.”  Unfortunately, single-use plastic grocery bags are making a huge comeback, and stores like Ikea have stopped distributing their in-store reusable bags due to safety concernsMeanwhile, a UN report released last week found that electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record of 53.6 million tons or about 16 pounds per person.

Why This Matters: Globally, less than 20% of the electronic waste has been collected and recycled — and that means billions of dollars worth of valuable metals that may be toxic when disposed of such as gold, silver, and copper ended up in landfills or incinerators last year.  And while residential waste is greatly increasing, fewer materials are being recycled other than cardboard, which is much in demand.  Recycling, like so many other local programs, needs federal financial support and soon.

Recycling Turmoil

According to researchers the University of Michigan, “[w]aste sources, quantities and destinations are all in flux, and shutdowns have devastated an industry that was already struggling” and at the same time, items that used to be deemed reusable have now been banned in order to reduce the potential that they will increase exposure to the virus.  In the meantime, lobbyists for the plastic industry seem to have taken advantage of the situation and pushed to eliminate plastic bag bans altogether – also due to the infection risk they claim re-usable bags cause.  Plus the grocery delivery services like Instacart do not use reusable bags. The U of M researchers who are working on recycling innovation are concerned about challenges facing the recycling sector and the increasing trends in the use of single-use goods, particularly plastic, and the lasting negative effects on the circular economy the pandemic could cause.

Electronics Piling Up Are an “Urban Mine”

Whether we think of it this way or not, e-waste is valuable — indeed, experts calculate that a ton of e-waste contains as many as 100 times more gold than a ton of gold ore and is estimated to be worth globally more than $62.5 billion annually.   But we will continue to waste it unless we require more from manufacturers in terms of collection and recycling.  In fact, the UN University predicts that if we continue to consume and discard at the current rate, we will add as much as 120 million tons in the next 30 years.  E-waste is also dangerous when disposed of in landfills or incinerated.  It contains toxic or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR).  Several studies have linked the unregulated recycling of e-waste to stillbirth and premature birth, damage to the human brain or nervous system, and even hearing and heart issues.

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