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Living in a Digital Economy: What Can Consumers Do About E-Waste?

During the recent partial lockdown in Singapore, many people have been stuck at home for a prolonged period. While some of us may have already tried to do some spring cleaning to clear out our excess items and old electronics, others would have bought new laptops or installed additional monitors to keep up with the new modality of remote working, which has increased the importance of being digitally-connected. Currently, 86% of Singaporeans are already connected to the internet, with an average ownership of 3.3 connected devices per person within the population, yet this trend is unlikely to subside. While many rejoice at the aggressive push for 5G mobile networks in Singapore (faster internet and broadband!), the growing rate of obsolescence of older products has also become a major concern for local authorities.

Annually, this amounts to the creation of 60,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic waste (“e-waste), which includes washing machines, laptops, mobile phones, television and refrigerators. On a per capita basis, this number sits at 19.5kg per person, or the equivalent of the weight of 73 mobile phones, which is over four-fold Asia’s generated average of 4.2 kg per capita. This number is expected to rise, exacerbated by greater purchasing power and other soft factors like product fashion, which often results in consumers carelessly tossing two year-old iPhones and other working electronic products into the refuse pile.

Much ado about e-waste

Some readers may be wondering why exactly this issue has elicited so much attention – the term “e-waste” hardly evokes any feelings of urgency, nor does it appear to be too harmful when compared to other waste categories such as food or plastic waste. However, e-waste can in fact be incredibly toxic to human health and our environment. E-waste generally contains hazardous substances, ranging from heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury in circuit boards to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HFCs) present within refrigerators. In a fully functional product, these chemicals are safely encased in their shell.

However, once these devices break, these toxic substances can easily leak and contaminate their immediate environment - such as landfills, where e-waste typically ends up or even streets. While most people would not come into contact with these chemicals, in Singapore they may be collected by scrap traders and rag-and-bone men who may not know how to safely dispose them. In Singapore, e-waste is often incinerated which could result in contaminated incinerated ash being landfilled, leading to toxic compounds entering the soil or seeping into water bodies. Long-term exposure to these non-biodegradable chemicals could lead to failures in the nervous system, kidney and reproductive systems. Burning other parts of the device, such as the plastic also leads to carbon emissions which contributes to global warming.

From a circular economy perspective, e-waste also contains rare and valuable materials such as gold, silver and other rare earth elements, making our own homes a veritable “urban mine”. Yet, by throwing away all our defunct printers or outdated laptops, we are essentially wasting these natural resources from which economic value could be extracted and capitalized on with the right methods. For instance, the 2021 Olympic Games will feature 5000 gold, silver and bronze medals made of metals extracted from six million mobile phones and 72,000 tonnes of electronic waste from donations in Japan between 2017 to 2019. Such circular approaches could help reduce our reliance on current extractive mining practices to create a more sustainable future.

To encourage stronger reuse and recycling practices, Singapore is gearing up to implement the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework in 2021, under which producers or importers of specific electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) will be responsible for the collection and treatment of e-waste. Products will have to be properly recycled at their end-of-life, and these producers must meet e-waste collection targets and send their collected e-waste to certified recyclers. For retailers, they may need to help with collection efforts, through designated collection points.

E-waste collection point at Courts Tampines

How can we as individuals address this problem?

With the above points in mind, there are several ways through which we can become responsible consumers of electronic goods. In fact, the oft-heard 3Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle – are a good starting point for us.

1) Reducing consumption

The easiest way to reduce e-waste is simply by asking whether the purchase of a new laptop or smartphone is truly essential or a “good to have”. In our current consumerist culture, it is all too easy to overconsume, especially in a bid to keep up with the latest trends. However, taking a minute to reconsider whether you really need the newest game console, or yet another pair of headphones can help to save precious resources. For instance, the production of a computer and monitor set requires at least 1500 kg of water and 240 kg of fossil fuels. If the device or item is a necessity, we can also consider other options, such as second-hand (refurbished) electronics; alternatively, if it a one-time use item like a camera for a photoshoot, for example, borrowing could suffice.

2) Reusing old electronics

A popular circular economy principle is the idea of product-life extension. This could manifest in several ways, such as the repair of old electronics or trading in and using refurbished items. In fact, some companies have even turned this into a circular business model. Reebelo is a Singaporean start-up that has created a marketplace for second-hand electronics. Apart from providing guaranteed, 100% functional original devices, they also provide second-hand electronics at a discounted prices, which makes it a more sustainable and wallet-friendly option. Meanwhile, local movements like Repair Kopitiam aim to combat the current buy-and-throw culture in Singapore, through community repair meet-ups.

3) Properly recycling e-waste

Beyond this, properly recycling faulty electronics which cannot be repaired or reused has also been made easy in Singapore. There are many recycling programmes available for Singaporeans, the full list of which is available here. In particular, the three major telcos (Starhub, Singtel and M1) have each come up with their own recycling programme with e-waste bins placed in shops or around the city, depending on the provider. There are also e-waste recycling programmes offered by certain districts, such as the Punggol Eco-Drive programme for Punggol North residents and the North East recycling programme. Meanwhile, there are also schemes for specific items as well. Following the Personal Mobility Devices (PMD) ban last year, there is the PMD recycling programme run by LTA, along with Project Homecoming (ink and toner cartridge) and the Ikea light bulb recycling programme. One of the biggest smartphone and consumer electronics companies in the world, Apple Inc., is also cradle-to-cradle (C2C) certified and offers recycling and trade-in-for-value services for customers.

Moving to a more circular economy

In the 5 minutes you spent reading this article, around 570 kg of e-waste would have been discarded in Singapore. So even as the world starts becoming more digital, we should not forget to move towards circularity as well. By being more conscious of our consumption patterns, and recycling our products responsibly, we can work together to support a more circular economy for consumer electronics. This way, we can conserve our limited natural resources and create a cleaner and more liveable planet for generations to come. Attend our upcoming webinar to learn more about the circular economy for electronics.

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