How E-Waste Can Be Good: Making Technology Better

By Weina Bao

Every time I walk into someone’s home, I always notice that there is a certain place-whether it be a box, a drawer, or a room-that is overwhelmed with past technological gadgets. Most of the time, I find out that what I see is not the complete array of devices that the family has owned; rather, they are kept for sentimental reasons. What’s one word to describe all of this? E-waste. The United States is the world’s largest producer of e-waste at 3.0 million tons annually, with China following closely behind at 2.3 million tons.  The average Chinese citizen is producing less e-waste than the average American, but as more of the Chinese population adapts to the newest technological gadgets, the total amount of e-waste will increase tremendously. This is harmful to the health of both China’s environment and its citizens, and is a result of the lack of convenient recycling channels and financial incentives.

E-waste has a negative connotation, yet a tremendous amount of money can be made from the components. Highly developed products contain precious metals whose value is more than $21 billion. However, less than 15% is recovered. Likewise, China is unable to fully utilize the amount of wealth that is available.

Many Chinese households contain electronics. When a device malfunctions or becomes obsolete,  Chinese people usually sell the product to an itinerant collector. This is both convenient for citizens and profitable for collectors. However, the impacts on the environment are deplorable. Second-hand waste collectors are cheaper than their legitimate counterparts, because they fail to follow national standards for safety regulations, and release toxic substances into the ecosystem without second thought. These toxic substances can cause cancer and severely  deteriorate the health of citizens. Despite the country’s growing awareness of the issue, up to 60% of consumers in China still sell used electronic products to unlicensed companies. The licensed companies have tried to arrange a hotline which consumers call in order to have their products picked up. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the hotline, while others find the process much slower and inconvenient than handing over devices to a collector. Since inconvenience is a difficult obstacle to overcome, financial incentives are crucial.

Certain legitimate recycling companies in China implemented a home appliance trade-in policy in 2008 that gave consumers discounts on new electronics in exchange for used ones, resulting in a drastic increase in supply. Unfortunately, the termination in discount policy a few years later resulted in a sharp decrease in supply. Since financial incentives have been proven successful, forms of it should be adapted by all recycling companies.

Financial incentives are the most effective way for recycling companies to have sufficient supply of products to take advantage of the supply of precious metals in high-tech products. Some financial incentives that can be used in the future are: discounts in electricity bills, gift cards, and free gifts every certain number of devices. The companies should also recruit volunteers who act as waste collectors on certain days of a week, and set up local places where people can turn in their e-waste. The government also needs to involve itself by implementing laws that regulate e-waste handling and the import of e-waste so that the efforts of the companies do not go to waste. If companies provide consumers with incentives that are both cheap and convenient, more than 15% of electronic devices will be recovered-perhaps even 70% or 80%. With a high recycling rate of electronic devices, billions of dollars can be made, so further technological devices can be developed at a faster rate that is affordable to all.

Weina Bao is a first-year student at Cornell University who intends on majoring in Operations Research and Engineering and minoring in Applied Economics and Management. She is interested in international relations, management science, and finance. Some of the things she enjoys doing in her free time are playing the violin, reading novels, listening to asian pop, shopping, and watching dramas.

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