Opinion Column

Circular Economy is Urgently Needed to Prevent the Effects of the Electronics Industry on Human Health, the Environment, and Biodiversity

Published May 25, 2021

Electronics have transformed the way we live and work; nowadays it is impossible to conceive life without a cell phone, computer, TV, washing machine or refrigerator.

The current global consumer electronics market is worth an estimated US$1 trillion and it is expected to continue growing as a result of the fast-paced and permanent technological replacement of such products.

However, the production and disposal of electrical and electronic devices is not only coupled with an enormous consumption of natural resources, it also leads to a considerable environmental pollution. E-waste is the fastest growing type of waste in the world (53.6 million tons in 2019, equivalent to almost 5,400 Eiffel towers); about 3 times faster than any other urban solid waste, with products often discarded prematurely and less than 20% is collected and recycled.

In Chile there is an abundance of electrical and electronic devices already installed in our daily lives. An average household includes around 40 electrical and/or electronic devices. Studies indicate that, in 2017, a total of 159 kilotons per year of waste from such devices was generated in the country, equivalent to 8.7 kilos per capita, which ranks us first in Latin America in generating this type of waste, and with a recycling rate well below the global average, below 3.4%.

These alarming figures demand the urgent implementation of a circular economy to prevent the effects of the electronics industry on human health, the environment, and biodiversity. There is a wide range of solutions that can help us move in this direction, including those aimed at extending the useful life of equipment, for example by putting an end to planned obsolescence, ensuring the right and the opportunity to repair, and promoting second-hand markets.

Furthermore, by promoting improvements in the design of products to minimize the amount of hazardous elements and thus simplifying the recycling process and finally ensuring an environmentally sound management of waste at the end of the products’ useful life.

In Chile, Law 20.920, known as the REP Law, includes Electrical and Electronic Equipment as priority products. Fundación Chile alongside the Ministry of Environment, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and several other stakeholders are moving forward in the E-Waste initiative to guide future actions for companies and citizens.

Standards, infrastructure, collection systems, treatment, etc., need to be implemented. At the same time, for these systems to work, they must be accompanied by adequate training and awareness not only for those who manage and operate them, but also for consumers and the population in general. Success will depend on all of us and our ability to change our habits and our courage to implement new measures and solutions.

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