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The World Has an E-Waste Problem

BY ALANA SEMUELS/FRESNO, CALIF. MAY 23, 2019


As a tech-hungry nation flush with cash gets ready to upgrade to the next generation of lightning-fast 5G devices, there is a surprising environmental cost to be reckoned with: a fresh mountain of obsolete gadgets. About 6 million lb. of discarded electronics are already processed monthly at recycling giant ERI’s Fresno plant. Pallets of once beloved but now outdated devices, like smartphones with only an 8-megapixel camera or tablets with a mere 12 GB of storage, arrive here daily. Workers with hammers hack at the bulkiest devices, while others remove dangerous components like lithium-ion batteries. The scene is like a twisted Pixar movie, with doomed gadgets riding an unrelenting conveyor belt into a machine that shreds them into piles of copper, aluminium and steel.



Workers sort through discarded electronics at ERI’s Fresno facility Christie Hemm Klok for TIME

“In our society, we always have to have the new, best product,” said Aaron Blum, the co-founder and chief operating officer of ERI, on a tour of the facility. Americans spent $71 billion on telephone and communication equipment in 2017, nearly five times what they spent in 2010 even when adjusted for inflation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. (Apple alone sold 60 million iPhones domestically last year, according to Counterpoint Research.) When we buy something new, we get rid of what’s old. That cycle of consumption has made electronics waste the world’s fastest-growing solid-waste stream.


That stream is expected to turn into a torrent as the world upgrades to 5G, the next big step in wireless technology. 5G promises faster speeds and other benefits. But experts say it will also result in a dramatic increase in e-waste, as millions of smartphones, modems and other gadgets incompatible with 5G networks are made obsolete. “I don’t think people understand the magnitude of the transition,” says ERI co-founder and executive chairman John Shegerian. “This is bigger than the change of black-and-white to color, bigger than analog to digital, by many multitudes.”



A heaping pile of circuit boards, which can be found in many modern electronics, at ERI's plant in Fresno in May. ERI separates them from their place of origin to be properly broken down and recycled. Christie Hemm Klok for TIME

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