Sustainability Impacts Overview: Zero Waste

February 3, 2021

The EPEAT ecolabel empowers purchasers to meet their organizational sustainability goals through their purchasing decisions. Products available through EPEAT include computers, monitors, copiers, mobile phones, televisions, and servers. EPEAT is just one of several sustainable purchasing resources freely available from the Global Electronics Council (GEC).

Why is Waste a Sustainability Concern?

The goal of zero waste is a move to a circular economy where we no longer send anything to a landfill. It emphasizes reducing the amount we buy, repairing and reusing for as long as we can, ensuring appropriate recycling, and demanding that manufacturers design products where materials can be recaptured and reintroduced into the supply chain. The goal of zero waste is especially crucial for electronics.

Electronics represent the fastest growing waste stream in the world1 and currently generates more than 48 million tons of e-waste annually. When these products end up in unmanaged landfills, they leach toxins into the soil and water, posing health risks to humans, animals, and plants. Many discarded IT products end up in developing countries, where they pose health exposure risks to those working in the informal scrap sector and the communities adjacent to the unmanaged landfills where they are ultimately dumped. Workers who are in the “informal scrap sector” disassemble electronics without access to protective gear and risk direct exposure to toxic substances such as mercury, cadmium, lead, and flame retardants, either through skin contact or inhalation of toxic fumes.

Although it is legal to export discarded electronics to developing countries if they can be reused or refurbished, much of the electronics sent to developing countries is e-waste. The Basel Convention is an international treaty designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent the transfer of hazardous waste, such as e-waste, from developed to less developed countries (LDCs). The United States is the only developed country that hasn’t ratified the Basel Convention.

Battery disposal, especially lithium and lithium-Ion batteries, must be handled carefully, and no lithium batteries should be thrown in the trash. Lithium is highly reactive and high temperatures, too high charging voltage, a short circuit, or even too much of a heavy strain can cause an exothermic reaction, i.e. a chemical reaction that results in the battery catching fire rapidly. This is why airlines do not allow spare lithium-ion batteries in checked baggage.

Electronic products are also a source of packaging waste – the packaging used in transporting large numbers of components or finished products from the manufacturer to assembly facilities to stores, as well as the packaging, and associated marketing materials, that end up in the hands of the consumer.

While electronics contain toxic materials, many also contain valuable elements like gold, silver, and copper. Based on e-waste disposal rates, Americans alone throw out phones worth $60 million in gold and silver every year.2 The trend towards Circularity for electronic products seeks to keep products in use for as long as possible, by emphasizing repairability and reuse, and the importance of recyclability, where core materials are more easily recaptured for input back into the supply chain.