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Trianon Scientific Communication

  • Writer's pictureDr Audrey-Flore Ngomsik

What is invisible waste? Where do your old mobile phones and TVs go to die?

What is invisble waste? Where do your old mobile phones and TVs go to die?

In our modern world, where technological advancements seem to know no bounds, a sinister side effect lurks beneath the surface: invisible electronic waste (e-waste).

While we often picture discarded computers, smartphones, and televisions when we think of e-waste, there exists a vast category of overlooked electronic items that contribute significantly to this global crisis.

The Extent of the problem

Each year, a staggering 9 billion kilograms of e-waste, comprising one-sixth of the world's total electronic waste, are discarded without much recognition from consumers.

This category of e-waste encompasses a myriad of items, from cables and electronic toys to vaping devices and power tools. These seemingly innocuous products often escape our attention, leading to their improper disposal and contributing to environmental degradation.

The Hidden Dangers of invisible waste

Among the invisible e-waste items are vaping devices, which alone amount to a mountain of waste equivalent to several iconic structures like the Eiffel Tower or the Brooklyn Bridge. What's more alarming is that many of these devices contain lithium batteries, posing serious fire hazards and environmental risks if not disposed of properly. Additionally, precious materials like copper, vital for various industries, are discarded in the form of cables without realizing their recyclable potential.

The true cost of e-waste

The now-common example for invisible waste is that producing a mobile telephone weighing less than 200 g generates more than 80 kg of waste .

The iceberg model
The true cost of waste

The chemical industry has known this concept for some 30 years by now, when Roger Sheldon introduced the “E-factor”.

Put simply, it relates the mass of the chemical products produced to the mass of the starting materials used in the process.

Recognizing the Value

Despite their inconspicuous nature, these discarded items hold significant value, both in terms of raw materials and environmental impact.

The European Commission identifies lithium as a strategic raw material crucial for green energy initiatives, highlighting the importance of proper e-waste management.

Moreover, the global value of raw materials in e-waste is estimated at a staggering $57 billion, with nearly one-sixth of that value lying within the invisible e-waste category.[1]

Addressing the Issue

To tackle the challenge of invisible e-waste, a concerted effort is required from all stakeholders. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, as implemented in Europe, has shown promising results in increasing e-waste collection rates.

However, global efforts are needed to raise awareness and establish effective recycling infrastructures. Reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling are key strategies in minimizing invisible waste and promoting a circular economy for electronics.

Mobile phone's life cycle
Mobile phone's life cycle

The issue of invisible e-waste serves as a poignant reminder of the hidden costs of our technological consumption. By shining a light on these overlooked items and adopting sustainable practices, we can mitigate the environmental impact of electronic waste while harnessing the value of recycled materials.



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