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The World’s E-Waste Has Reached a Crisis Point

The World’s E-Waste Has Reached a Crisis Point

The phone or computer you’re reading this on may not be long for this world. Maybe you’ll drop it in water, or your dog will make a chew toy of it, or it’ll reach obsolescence. If you can’t repair it and have to discard it, the device will become e-waste, joining an alarmingly large mountain of defunct TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, cameras, routers, electric toothbrushes, headphones. This is “electrical and electronic equipment,” aka EEE—anything with a plug or battery. It’s increasingly out of control.

As economies develop and the consumerist lifestyle spreads around the world, e-waste has turned into a full-blown environmental crisis. People living in high-income countries own, on average, 109 EEE devices per capita, while those in low-income nations have just four. A new UN report finds that in 2022, humanity churned out 137 billion pounds of e-waste—more than 17 pounds for every person on Earth—and recycled less than a quarter of it.

That also represents about $62 billion worth of recoverable materials, like iron, copper, and gold, hitting e-waste landfills each year. At this pace, e-waste will grow by 33 percent by 2030, while the recycling rate could decline to 20 percent. (You can see this growth in the graph below: purple is EEE on the market, black is e-waste, and green is what gets recycled.)

Graph displaying ewaste generation

Courtesy of UN Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

“What was really alarming to me is that the speed at which this is growing is much quicker than the speed that e-waste is properly collected and recycled,” says Kees Baldé, a senior scientific specialist at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and lead author of the report. “We just consume way too much and we dispose of things way too quickly. We buy things that we may not even need, because it’s just very cheap. And also these products are not designed to be repaired.”

Humanity has to quickly bump up those recycling rates, the report stresses. In the first pie chart below, you can see the significant amount of metals we could be saving, mostly iron (chemical symbol Fe, in light gray), along with aluminum (Al, in dark gray), copper (Cu), and nickel (Ni). Other EEE metals include zinc, tin, and antimony. Overall, the report found that in 2022, generated e-waste contained 68 billion pounds of metal.

Graphs displaying recoverable and nonrecoverable metals in ewaste

Courtesy of UN Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

Solar-Powered Farming Is Quickly Depleting the World’s Groundwater Supply

Solar-Powered Farming Is Quickly Depleting the World’s Groundwater Supply

That is certainly the case in Yemen, on the south flank of the Arabian Peninsula, where the desert sands have a new look these days. Satellite images show around 100,000 solar panels glinting in the sun, surrounded by green fields. Hooked to water pumps, the panels provide free energy for farmers to pump out ancient underground water. They are irrigating crops of khat, a shrub whose narcotic leaves are the country’s stimulant of choice, chewed through the day by millions of men.

For these farmers, the solar irrigation revolution in Yemen is born of necessity. Most crops will only grow if irrigated, and the country’s long civil war has crashed the country’s electricity grid and made supplies of diesel fuel for pumps expensive and unreliable. So, they are turning en masse to solar power to keep the khat coming.

The panels have proved an instant hit, says Middle East development researcher Helen Lackner of SOAS University of London. Everybody wants one. But in the hydrological free-for-all, the region’s underground water, a legacy of wetter times, is running out.

The solar-powered farms are pumping so hard that they have triggered “a significant drop in groundwater since 2018 … in spite of above average rainfall,” according to an analysis by Leonie Nimmo, a researcher who was until recently at the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory. The spread of solar power in Yemen “has become an essential and life-saving source of power,” both to irrigate food crops and provide income from selling khat, he says, but it is also “rapidly exhausting the country’s scarce groundwater reserves.”

In the central Sana’a Basin, Yemen’s agricultural heartland, more than 30 percent of farmers use solar pumps. In a report with Musaed Aklan, a water researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Lackner predicts a “complete shift” to solar by 2028. But the basin may be down to its last few years of extractable water. Farmers who once found water at depths of 100 feet or less are now pumping from 1,300 feet or more.

Some 1,500 miles to the northeast, in in the desert province of Helmand in Afghanistan, more than 60,000 opium farmers have in the past few years given up on malfunctioning state irrigation canals and switched to tapping underground water using solar water pumps. As a consequence, water tables have been falling typically by 10 feet per year, according to David Mansfield, an expert on the country’s opium industry from the London School of Economics.

An abrupt ban on opium production imposed by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in 2022 may offer a partial reprieve. But the wheat that the farmers are growing as a replacement is also a thirsty crop. So, water bankruptcy in Helmand may only be delayed.

“Very little is known about the aquifer [in Helmand], its recharge or when and if it might run dry,” according to Mansfield. But if their pumps run dry, many of the million-plus people in the desert province could be left destitute, as this vital desert resource—the legacy of rainfall in wetter times—disappears for good.

Tech Still Isn’t Doing Enough to Care for the Environment

Tech Still Isn’t Doing Enough to Care for the Environment

We are in a climate crisis, and technology can be either a part of the problem or a force for good, says Greenpeace CTO Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, she explains, we have “less than seven years before Earth becomes really difficult to live on.” Last year alone, the world witnessed wildfires in North America, floods in Southern Africa, and even the double tragedy of floods and fires in places like Greece, she says.

Social media allows people from across the world to communicate, but “we’re seeing misinformation, disinformation, and a wanton disregard for sustainability by some of these platforms—and unfortunately, people don’t have many other options.”

Chomba-Kinywa says that VCs, startups, investors, and technologists should invest in alternative platforms “that are green, that are ethical, that are value-based, and that give us an alternative to what we have right now, being built by people so passionate about the environment that they will not sell out in the name of profits.”

Even though conventional investment is supposed to maximize shareholder value, she argues, investing in these platforms is a price worth paying, as customers will soon be demanding action.

Chomba-Kinywa salutes companies already taking action—such as Hyundai, which recently committed to stop supplying the heavy machinery used for illegal mining in the Amazon. This was possible, she says, through the use of satellite imagery and pressure from leaders in Indigenous communities, which led to a report that Hyundai couldn’t ignore.

Good data, she explains, is vital—Greenpeace has been using it since 2009 to persuade some tech giants to switch to 100 percent renewable energy. For those that refused, the campaigning NGO just walked away. Other organizations should do the same, she says.

“What if you could use your influence to apply pressure on these organizations to change?” she asks. “Say, ‘We’ve looked at the data, we’ve looked at your plans. You’re not doing enough, and we won’t give you our money.’ Then maybe we can make a little bit more of a change.”

Finally, she says businesses need to work with communities from places like Senegal, Zambia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Mexico to understand and support their movements. “Sit with the elders in their communities, listen to the Indigenous knowledge that allowed them to coexist with nature, and start to reapply some of those principles,” she suggests. “They are scrambling for their lives.”

Chomba-Kinywa also says that conversations on AI need to focus on the planet. “We’re talking about values, ethics, and putting guardrails in place—but we can’t do that without talking about the environment,” she argues. “We need to think through the environmental cost of AI. It has the potential to help us solve some of humanity’s grand challenges, but that’s only useful if humanity has a livable planet.”

This article appears in the March/April 2024 issue of WIRED UK magazine.

The US Has Big Plans for Wind Energy—but an Obscure 1920s Law Is Getting in the Way

The US Has Big Plans for Wind Energy—but an Obscure 1920s Law Is Getting in the Way

The reason for the Jones Act’s longevity, says Colin Grabow, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is that while it tends to benefit only a few people and businesses, the act goes unnoticed because there are many payers sharing the increased costs.

The Jones Act is one in a string of protectionist laws—dating back to the Tariff Act of 1789—designed to bolster US marine industries. The Jones Act’s existence was meant to ensure a ready supply of ships and mariners in case of war. Its authors reasoned that protection from foreign competition would foster that.

“Your average American has no idea that the Jones Act even exists,” Grabow says. “It’s not life-changing for very many people,” he adds. But “all Americans are hurt by the Jones Act.” In this case, that’s by slowing down the United States’ ability to hit its own wind power targets.

Grabow says those most vocal about the law—the people who build, operate, or serve on compliant ships—usually want to keep it in place.

Of course, there’s more going on with the country’s slow rollout of offshore wind power than just a century-old shipping law. It took a slew of factors to sink New Jersey’s planned Ocean Wind installations, says Abraham Silverman, an expert on renewable energy at Columbia University in New York.

Ultimately, says Silverman, rising interest rates, inflation, and other macroeconomic factors caught New Jersey’s projects at their most vulnerable stage, inflating the construction costs after Ørsted had already locked in its financing.

Despite the setbacks, the potential for offshore wind power generation in the United States is massive. The NREL estimates that fixed-bottom offshore wind farms in the country could theoretically generate some 1,500 gigawatts of power—more than the United States is capable of generating today.

There’s a lot the United States can do to make its expansion into offshore wind more efficient. And that’s where the focus needs to be right now, says Matthew Shields, an engineer at NREL specializing in the economics and technology of wind energy.

“Whether we build 15 or 20 or 25 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, that probably doesn’t move the needle that much from a climate perspective,” says Shields. But if building those first few turbines sets the country up to then build 100 or 200 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2050, he says, then that makes a difference. “If we have ironed out all these issues and we feel good about our sustainable development moving forward, to me, I think that’s a real win.”

But today, some of the offshore wind industry’s issues stem, inescapably, from the Jones Act. Those inefficiencies mean lost dollars and, perhaps more importantly in the rush toward carbon neutrality, lost time.

Trawling Boats Are Hauling Up Ancient Carbon From the Ocean Depths

Trawling Boats Are Hauling Up Ancient Carbon From the Ocean Depths

The fillet of flounder sitting on your plate comes with a severe environmental cost. To catch it, a ship running on fossil fuels spewed greenhouse gases as it dragged a trawl net across the seafloor, devastating the ecosystems in its path. Obvious enough. But new research shows that the consequences extend even further: Trawl nets are hauling up both food and a huge amount of carbon that’s supposed to be sequestered in the murky depths.

In a paper publishing in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, researchers have tallied up an estimate of how much seafloor carbon the bottom-trawling industry stirs into the water and how much of that is released into the air as CO2 each year, exacerbating global warming. It turns out to be double the annual fossil fuel emissions produced by the entire world’s 4 million–vessel fishing fleet.

“At least 55 to 60 percent of the CO2 created by trawling—scraping the seafloor—is going to come into the atmosphere within nine years,” says lead author and ecosystem ecologist Trisha Atwood, who focuses on carbon cycling at Utah State University and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas program. “It now suggests that countries should be looking at this industry, and that their carbon footprint goes a lot further than maybe they were thinking, just in terms of the amount of gas that they burned to get out to their fishing grounds.”

The oceans have gone a long way in saving humanity from itself. They’ve absorbed something like 90 percent of the extra heat our civilization has pumped into the atmosphere, helping naturally mitigate global warming. And they’re vast carbon sinks: Photosynthesizing phytoplankton absorb CO2 as they grow at the surface, then die and sink to the seafloor, locking that carbon away from the atmosphere. Or little creatures known as zooplankton gobble up those phytoplankton and poop out pellets of carbon that also sink.

Either way, there’s a worldwide conveyor belt of carbon moving from the surface down into the depths, where it’s supposed to stay for a long, long time. “Once it gets buried under just a couple of centimeters, really, of sediment, it goes below the ‘active zone,’ as we call it,” says Atwood. “If it’s undisturbed—so it’s not mixed up or trawled up—that carbon can stay down there for tens of thousands of years.”

A huge, weighted trawl net obliterates all that. “They drag along the bottom and cut through everything in their wake,” says Max Valentine, campaign director of Oceana’s illegal fishing and transparency campaign in the United States, who wasn’t involved in the research. “We liken bottom trawling to clear-cutting of a forest. For example, hard corals in Alaska, which have been dated to hundreds of thousands of years old, can be destroyed in just a single swipe.” Anything caught up in the net that wasn’t the target food species—known as bycatch—gets hauled aboard the ship, often dead, and thrown back overboard.