Recently, there have been a number of articles with titles such as “Study shows residential electronic scrap generation is declining” or “E-scrap generation on the decline, study finds.” or “E-Waste Is Declining, Government Needs To Change Laws To Keep Up – And Get Out Of The Recycling Business.”
As a veteran of the semiconductor industry, these articles are quite counterintuitive and surprising.
How can e-waste be going down when electronics is seemingly becoming integrated into nearly every facet of the world?
The basis of the story is a study “ The evolution of consumer electronic waste in the United States” by Shanana Althaf, Callie W. Babbitt, and Roger Chen. This study, sponsored by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), conceptually has the following thought process:
- Sales: Track consumer sales of popular consumer devices such as phones, tablets, printers, desktops, displays, and more. Basically, the stuff you buy at stores such as Best Buy.
- Device Breakdown: Break down each device into component parts.
- Lifetime Analysis: For each device, build a model of lifetime, and thus when the product is likely to enter the waste stream.
Based on this model, the accumulated tonnage of waste product is generated and the very surprising result presented is that e-waste generated in US households peaked in 2015 and has been declining after this point. Is this decline “real?” The correlation of the model with actual tonnage seen at retail electronics waste facilities was not discussed in the paper.
However, the basic model and methodology seem reasonable. According to the authors and the supporting data, the major underlying drivers of this reduction of e-waste were:
- Display Technology Shift: A large amount of the reduction of e-waste was the shift from CRTs to Flat Panel Displays. Remember we are talking about weight/mass.
- System Device Integration: Dominant consumer devices such as cell-phones and laptops absorbing function which were previously fulfilled by multiple devices (ex mapping devices).
Accepting the rationale and staying within the lane of the study (retail consumer devices), the natural conclusion would be that while e-waste is declining temporarily, it is likely to rise again. Why? The dominant consumer devices are still growing rapidly. As an example, global cell phones grew 9.1% Year over Year last year. Further, the basic form factor for these fundamental devices is not changing dramatically. Cell phones have actually gotten bigger in the last few years. At some point, the e-waste flows from CRTs and older single function electronics devices will be exhausted or be so small that it is no longer material.
Interestingly, the bigger picture is that outside the lane of retail consumer devices, electronics usage is rising rapidly in major consumer devices such as automobiles (moving to 40% of cost), home appliances, and cable boxes. Further, commercial infrastructure such as cloud, telecommunications(5G), and transportation infrastructure are consuming electronics at an accelerated pace.
How does all of this net out ?
The summation of all of this usage can be seen by the total semiconductor unit volume shipped (Figure Below) from World Semiconductor Trade Statistics Data. Overall, the unit volume of semiconductors has been increasing at a 15+% compounded rate. This is despite the fact that during this time Moore’s law has enabled the doubling of functionality several times over the decade.
So.. what is the “rest of the story” ?
- Retail Consumer: Technology shifts such as display technology or system absorption into dominant platforms can indeed cause e-waste tonnage to decline temporarily. However, as these major platforms proliferate more deeply worldwide, the growth of e-waste will likely follow. If another dominant platform becomes viable, the situation may shift even more dramatically.
- Non_Retail Consumer: Larger form-factor devices such as appliances, home energy systems (ex..solar), and especially automobiles have an increasing amount of electronics and the resulting e-waste must be handled gracefully.
- Centralized Infrastructure: Services such as cloud, transportation control, and communications are all accelerating their use of electronics.
- Distributed Infrastructure: With Internet-of-things (IOT) technology, electronics is increasingly embedded in a distributed context in the environment. Because of the large distributed embedded nature, gracefully handling e-waste will become an important factor.
Each of these streams have different characteristics for e-waste collection and disposal.
Overall, electronics usage continues to accelerate and this acceleration adds an enormous amount of value to society. However, the other side of this acceleration is a need to handle the e-waste gracefully.
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