Sign In

Communications of the ACM


The Battle to Mitigate E-Waste

individual standing next to a pile of electronic waste, illustration

Credit: E-Waste Monitor

E-waste is the term for electronic equipment that no longer works or that you no longer want. That can include anything from smartphones and laptops to extension cords and remote controls. No matter the type, one thing is true about every kind of e-waste:

It is piling up fast.

In 2019 alone, the world generated 53 million metric tons of e-waste from discarded smartphones, laptops, tablets, and myriad other electronic devices, according to research from the United Nations. That number is expected to balloon to 74 million metric tons by 2030, almost doubling in just 16 years.

The culprits are twofold:

  • One, we are simply obsessed with electronics. We have more devices available to buy than ever, and more people are using them each year than the year before. In fact, 1.5 billion smartphones alone are sold annually, according to e-waste researchers at the University of California, San Diego.
  • Two, those devices do not last long. According to the same researchers, the average consumer discards their smartphone after approximately 2.5 years. This can be due to a variety of reasons, including broken components that cannot easily be repaired, or the release of new models.

Once electronic devices are discarded, they become a huge problem. Not only does e-waste produce a monumental amount of physical material to store or dispose of, but electronic devices contain harmful chemicals and materials (including heavy metals, toxins, and lead). After e-waste degrades in a landfill, these chemicals and materials can leach into soil and groundwater, causing serious risks to human and environmental health.

The problem has companies, citizens, and governments scrambling for solutions to mitigate e-waste—some of which seem especially promising.

Back to Top

Manufacturing with the End in Mind

Manufacturers, of course, are responsible for creating the devices that become e-waste. One of the top strategies they are pursuing to mitigate e-waste is to use smarter manufacturing practices when creating devices in the first place, with the goal of making those devices either more recyclable or less harmful if they cannot be recycled.

One way manufacturers do that is by picking the right materials with which to manufacture devices.

"Electronics manufacturers are looking at material selection and their sources as one of the key factors for re-cyclability," says Madhavi Srinivasan, an e-waste researcher at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

That includes using organic alternatives to plastics and resins. For instance, some manufacturers are progressively transitioning away from conventional plastic ingredients in favor of sustainable alternatives such as bioplastics, says Sunil Kumar, a senior principal scientist within India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Bioplastics are compounds produced from ingredients such as corn starch or sugar cane, ingredients that contain biodegradable qualities so they can easily be recycled.

Increasingly environmentally conscious consumers also are playing a role, by pressuring companies to look more closely at their overall carbon footprint.

Increased awareness among consumers of the environmental effects of e-waste and manufacturing generally has companies looking closely at their manufacturing processes. Decisions made during the production process can both reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing processes and make components easier to recycle, says Srinivasan.

Another way manufacturers are doing their part to mitigate e-waste is by exploring ways to design more modular device components. This makes devices easier to break down during the recycling process or to reuse by salvaging components that work in other products. And manufacturers increasingly are doing this recycling and salvaging themselves through take-back initiatives, says Kumar.

Take-back initiatives allow consumers to take old devices to designated collection points run by manufacturers. From there, manufacturers recycle or recondition them, taking the burden of disposing of e-waste off consumers or third parties.

One manufacturer embracing a range of these approaches is electronics company Panasonic, which intentionally manufactured its Toughbook laptop line to last significantly longer than many other electronic devices. Tough-books are manufactured to last at high performance levels for nearly a decade.

While that may not support recyclability, it dramatically reduces the number of Toughbooks to be recycled or that risk degrading in landfills.

"From a sustainability perspective, increasing the lifetime 'time-of-use' of existing electronic products can be more beneficial than recycling," says Mazher Mohammed, a senior lecturer in digital fabrication at Loughborough University.

Panasonic also is offering a take-back service for Toughbooks that customers no longer need. As part of that program, called Revive, Toughbooks are refurbished, reused, or recycled. Refurbished devices often are given to charities or sold on secondhand markets. If the device cannot be refurbished, it is responsibly recycled.

And it seems Panasonic's conservation creativity knows no bounds. The company also works with the Royal Mint, which makes coins in the U.K., to reuse certain components within laptops that cannot be refurbished.

Back to Top

More Waste to Deal With, More Work to Do

Make no mistake, the electronics industry has made notable strides in recent years toward better recycling practices, says Kumar.

"There exists a heightened awareness and a stronger emphasis on responsibly managing electronic waste," he says.

The awareness of the environmental impact of e-waste has grown among consumers, too, says Srinivasan. This is also moving the fight against e-waste forward. In fact, instead of waiting for top-down solutions from manufacturers, many consumers are engaging in grassroots movements that are having an impact.

Part of the problem is that the types of devices being manufactured to meet ravenous consumer demand are inherently difficult to recycle.

The most notable of these is the right-to-repair movement (see "The Fight to Repair" in the October 2023 issue of Communications).

In the last decade, consumer rights advocates have won a number of legal and public relations battles to protect and expand the "right to repair," the ability for consumers to access the parts and know-how to repair their own electronic devices—without directly relying on manufacturers to do so.

Major right-to-repair laws have passed in New York State and the European Union that now allow consumers to repair devices—extending the lifespan of products and keeping them out of landfills.

This is all good news.

But the economics of full-scale e-waste recycling are still unforgiving, and are limiting progress.

"Adoption of radically new methodologies for recycling suffers partly due to challenges related to scalability, cost-effectiveness, and compatibility with existing processes," says Srinivasan.

Part of the problem is the types of devices being manufactured to meet ravenous consumer demand are inherently difficult to recycle, says Mohammed. For instance, mobile phones use sophisticated multi-material deposition techniques to miniaturize electrical components. That makes the recovery of each individual material very difficult to do at both low cost and scale.

Another pathway being considered is the idea of extended producer responsibility, or EPR.

Solutions to this problem could include placing greater emphasis during the design process on the ability of a device to be disassembled, he says. Companies also might benefit from considering greater modularity in products, so there is more incentive to recover and reuse high-value components in future products. Such changes, however, require a rethinking of current business models.

Not to mention, one of the biggest challenges is simply increasing the rates of collection and recycling now that more avenues exist to handle e-waste, says Kumar.

"Despite the advancements achieved, a considerable quantity of electronic waste still finds its way into landfills or is exported to developing nations with inadequate recycling protocols," he says.

Back to Top

Taking Formal Action against E-Waste

Part of the solution to the e-waste problem may lie in more formal, more consistent, and more centralized action to combat it. Globally, several regulations and directives—some government-led, others private initiatives—are underway to tackle the exploding e-waste problem.

There are no e-waste regulations at the federal level in the U.S., but there are plenty of electronics recycling laws at the state level that have a major impact on e-waste. For instance, in 2023, New York State amended its electronics recycling laws to require electronics manufacturers to provide free electronics collection and recycling.

In the E.U., the European Community's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive is a major regulation that went into effect in 2012. It mandates that E.U. member states establish collection frameworks for electronic waste, promote recycling, and establish targets for managing electronic waste, says Kumar. Under the directive, manufacturers also have a responsibility to reclaim and recycle their products.

One formal private-sector initiative at work is the Global E-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), an industry program focused on promoting sustainability in the electronics sector. GeSI encourages collaboration among companies to improve supply-chain practices and resource efficiency.

Another pathway being considered is the idea of extended producer responsibility, or EPR.

"EPR is a policy approach that holds manufacturers accountable for the entire life cycle of their products, encompassing proper disposal and recycling," says Kumar. Basically, EPR seeks to pressure companies in a variety of ways to be financially accountable for the environmental damage their products can cause.

A number of countries, including Canada and India, and certain states in the U.S. are contemplating or have implemented EPR programs. For instance, a new EPR ordinance Austria launched last year mandates that all companies that put packaging on the market must then participate in the recycling of that packaging. A similar EPR-based system for electronics could force manufacturers to do even more to combat e-waste.

* Further Reading

Bennett, M.
Turning old laptops into gold—how Panasonic's Revive program cuts out e-waste, Diginomica, Aug. 23, 2023,

Clementi, K.
UC San Diego computer scientists tackle annual waste of 1.5 Billion junked smartphones, UC San Diego Today, Aug. 17, 2023,

Forti, V. et al,
The global e-waste monitor 2020, E-Waste Monitor, 2020,

Back to Top


Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa, FL. He has written for more than 60 major publications.

©2024 ACM  0001-0782/24/03

Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and full citation on the first page. Copyright for components of this work owned by others than ACM must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers, or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or fee. Request permission to publish from or fax (212) 869-0481.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2024 ACM, Inc.


No entries found