While India generates about 2 million tonnes of electronic waste or e-waste, every year, only 1.5% of the generated e-waste gets recycled creating a growing burden on the environment. Ranked 5th globally, India is already among the world’s top e-waste producing countries, and its ranking on this ominous ladder is expected to rise.
As technology keeps advancing, we upgrade our devices, whether we need to or not; driven by the desire to use the latest available product. With 1.1 billion mobile phone subscribers, 4 times that of the US, and over 57 million computers in use it’s hardly surprising that the generation of e-waste generation in India is on the rise.
As technology penetrates rural India, the demand for electronics will increase at an even more rapid pace. Reports project that the electronics sector is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 24% to $400 billion by 2020. Consequently, experts foresee a 17% increase in e-waste, making it the fastest-growing domestic waste stream.
What makes e-waste so dangerous is that it contains lithium, a poisonous substance present in batteries which creates severe environmental issues and serious health hazards, including damage to the nervous system, respiratory disorders as well as skin diseases, bronchitis, and even lung cancer among workers who handle such waste manually.
However, most solutions have been focused on driving producer responsibility towards recycling, which on its own won’t be sufficient to solve this dire problem. Such solutions place the producer at the centre, making them responsible for the dismantling and recycling of used products.
In such cases, the consumer simply deposits the used product with the producer who is then committed to using the safest possible means to recycle it. But even in the US, less than a quarter of all e-waste is recycled, according to a United Nations estimate. The rest is incinerated or ends up in landfills.
Why is that? With the hassle and cost of recycling, many consumers simply throw their devices into the trash or stash them in a drawer.
What we need instead is a product redesign, wherein producers adopt a modular approach. In the past, companies have released ‘modular smartphones’ like the Moto Z with its Moto Mods or the LG G5, or even the Essential Phone, however, none of them have been truly modular.
In my opinion, they are just using the badge of modularity to sell accessories like cases and speakers. Even though they weren’t successful, we must acknowledge that they at least attempted, to move towards a modular solution.
To create modular solutions, manufacturers will need to find a way to implement the idea proposed by Dave Hakkens and his PhoneBloks in 2013. So revolutionary was his idea, that a video made by him explaining the concept went viral in the tech-community at the time.
This concept involves producing ‘bloks’ or ‘modules’ of individual components of a product and connecting them to a mainframe. Often analogized with LEGO, this approach allows consumers to simply replace the part of the product which is damaged or obsolete. Not only would this save consumers money, but it would also allow them to customize the product to fit their own personal needs.
For example, a salesperson, who is always on the road might need a larger battery, while young families might prefer a great camera to be able to capture moments that can be treasured forever.
While Google and Motorola co-developed Project Ara in 2014, as a prototype of a phone based on the concept of modularity and ‘phonebloks,’ in 2016, the project was cancelled as part of a broader streamlining of the company’s hardware products.
In the short term, modularity is expensive and time-consuming to implement, however, its long-term benefits can significantly outweigh the short-term expenses. Concerns regarding the wearing down of components due to constant plugging and replacing of new components, seem exaggerated as upgrades will not be a daily process.
Manufacturers need to follow Dave Hakkens’ idea and not give up on it, while governments need to provide them incentives to do so. We could borrow ideas from other industries such as plug-in electric vehicles.
Grants, low-interest loans and favourable tax treatment for manufacturers, have been used for a wide variety of industries from electric vehicles to agriculture across the world and it’s high time that governments devise them to drive modularity.