At Human-I-T, we talk about what e-waste is – a lot.
As well we should. As the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, e-waste deserves our attention.
However, it occurred to us that it’s quite difficult to actually articulate what e-waste is to most people.
For that reason, we wanted to discuss the multiple definitions of e-waste, why most of these definitions fall short, and how we define it at Human-I-T.
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
How do we currently define e-waste?
E-waste is the informal term used to describe electronic products near the end of their useful life. Some other common names for e-waste include e-scrap and end-of-life electronics.
However, while its name sounds intuitive, there is no unified understanding about what can actually be classified as “e-waste”. Below, we’ll explore how a few different organizations define e-waste.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Definition of E-Waste
According to the EPA, e-waste is a specific subset of electronics whose materials can be reused, refurbished, or recycled. The EPA lists ten main product types that generate e-waste:
- Large household appliances like A/C units and freezers
- Small household appliances like microwaves and toasters
- IT equipment, including monitors
- Consumer electronics such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones
- Lamps and luminary devices
- Medical devices
- Monitoring and control instruments
- Automatic dispensers
However, while this list is certainly large, it by no means satisfactorily encompasses all of the possible sources of e-waste. To find that, we’ll have to look to international organizations’ definition of e-waste.
The European Union’s Definition of E-Waste
The European Union (EU) uses the term WEEE in place of the words e-waste or e-scrap. WEEE stands for Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment. This term allows for a broader perspective on what types of end-of-life products can be considered e-waste.
According to the EU, WEEE can be generated from any equipment dependent on electric currents or electromagnetic fields in order to work properly. However, even with such a broad scope, the EU’s definition of e-waste is still by no means universally applicable. To find something close to that, we have to look to an organization known as StEP.
StEP’s Definition of E–Waste
In 2014, StEP (which stands for Solving the E-Waste Problem) decided to create a definition of e-waste that could be widely agreed upon. They recognized a lack of agreement on what constitutes e-waste meant there was little hope for international e-waste regulation.
In the end, StEP arrived at the following definition of e-waste: “E-Waste is a term used to cover items of all types of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by the owner as waste without the intention of re-use.” Since its release, StEP’s definition has remained the simplest and most widely applicable definition of e-waste.
But while StEP’s definition allows us to determine what types of electronic items can become e-waste, it creates a new question. That being: is something only e-waste when its owner no longer finds it useful?
The problem with defining e-waste
According to the definitions offered by StEP and the EU, electronics become e-waste once their owner decides they’ve reached the end of their useful life.
However, these definitions allows for great variance in how technology owners determine their electronics as no longer being useful. This inconsistency often results in devices being deemed e-waste when they are no longer useful to their owners – rather than when they are no longer useful at all.
As a result, tens of millions of tons of still-functioning devices get classified as e-waste and are disposed of. 57.4 million tons of these devices, to be exact. Most often, these devices are recycled or thrown away into landfills where they pollute our planet and harm human health.
Recognizing this as an unacceptable outcome, Human-I-T devised a unique system that helps further delineate reusable technology from true e-waste.
A new, three-pronged approach to rethinking e-waste
At Human-I-T, we categorize old electronics typically deemed as “e-waste” as belonging to one of three quality tiers: donation-grade, outlier, and true e-waste.
These categories allow us to determine whether technology should be refurbished and distributed to people who need it, resold to buyers who can use it, or responsibly disposed of.
Donation-grade technology is technology that retains enough potential functionality that it can be refurbished and redistributed to people who need it.
This kind of technology includes devices like laptops, desktops, tablets, and other personal computing devices.
This is the type of old technology we most want to divert away from landfills, as it has the highest potential for reuse of any type of discarded electronics.
Outlier technology is technology that is typically suited for commercial or industrial applications.
This includes a variety of electronic hardware like multifunction printers, A/V equipment, servers, computer parts, and more.
Rather than recycle it, we resell this type of technology to interested buyers who have specific uses for it.
We then use the proceeds from those sales to power our digital literacy training courses and free technical support service.
Not every electronic device or component can be refurbished or reused, unfortunately.
Technology that can’t be refurbished back to full functionality is rightfully referred to as “true e-waste”.
When we receive true e-waste, we ensure that it’s safely and sustainably disposed of via a heavily-vetted R2-Certified organization.
To combat e-waste’s toll on the environment, we must think about intent
As long as we only focus on what types of objects are discarded and not whether or not they should be discarded at all, we will always be playing catchup with the e-waste stream.
This is an uphill fight, too: the amount of e-waste generated globally is set to more than double by 2050. Given the scale of the climate crisis, e-waste recycling is no longer a sufficient solution.
We must prioritize reuse if we want to protect our environment, the health and safety of tens of millions of people, and build a more sustainable society.