What are the environmental costs of current consumer trends, behaviours and purchasing decisions?

The ever-growing environmental ramifications of present-day consumer demand for electronic goods can be seen in the growing production of E-waste and the environmentally detrimental pollution it causes. Only 17.4% of E-Waste is formally recycled across the world[1]. The rest goes on to become a part of the $50bn industry in which this valuable waste is burnt, treated with acid, and broken up in ‘processing sites’ to be sold, scrapped, or repurposed. This process has been shown to poison the air, soil, water, atmosphere, and humans. Indeed, this is the cost of modern-day consumer behaviour surrounding the designed obsolescence in the production of consumer electronics, the rise of online shopping, and the demand for an “E-world”, notionally related to the Internet of Things.

To a large extent, the environmental damage caused by E-waste can be attributed to the current consumer trend of continually replacing and upgrading electronic goods. Largely at the hand of designed obsolescence, both in marketing a perceived temporal obsolescence and in intentionally engineering obsolescence into a product, it is ensured that the consumers want to ‘upgrade’ to the ‘latest model’. Since 2014, the mass of E-waste produced per year has risen by over 2 million metric tonnes per year. The total amount is estimated to be approximately 347 million metric tonnes[2]. Many would argue that it is not coincidental that Apple’s annual revenue similarly increased annually by over $183m between 2014 and 2021[3]. In fact, between 2014 and 2018, Apple sent 13.6 thousand metric tonnes of waste to landfill[4] – the equivalent of 68 million iPhones. The Basel Action Network claims that 50% to 80% of E-waste collected in the United States gets exported to other, predominantly developing, countries[5]. This exported waste often ends up in highly unregulated ‘processing’ sites. Consider Guiyu, an E-waste site in China; the concentration of lead in the water is over 2,400 times the global safe level[6]. 81.8% of children there were found to have blood lead levels higher than the worldwide average (10μg/dL)[7]. In fact, according to the WHO, there are ‘serious consequences for the health of children’ including ‘comas, convulsions, and even death’. Therefore, can we contribute the repercussions of this planned obsolescence to the consumer? Steve Jobs once famously said ‘the customer doesn’t know what they want until we’ve shown them’[8]. Apple’s marketing associates ownership of their products with social hierarchical status. In a lawsuit in 2021, Apple were accused of deliberately designing the lithium-ion batteries in the iPhone 6 (the most widely sold iPhone of all time[9]) to have an increased rate of deterioration, forcing consumers to either repair the batteries at elevated prices or ‘upgrade’ to the latest model. Although the lawsuit was settled out of court, Apple paid over $500m in settlements[10], a sum most would argue could not make up for the environmental impacts caused by such an act of designed obsolescence.

The change in consumer purchasing decisions, specifically in shifting towards online shopping, increases the rate of E-waste produced while simultaneously increasing the CO2 released in shipping and returns. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the percentage growth of consumers purchasing electronic goods online grew by 30% for electrical appliances and by 10% for consumer electronics[11]. Alongside this, the number of online returns doubled. Considering that over 40% of all returned electronic goods were sent to landfill during the pandemic[12], it can be clearly posited that the rise of online shopping, recently catalysed by the pandemic, increased the amount of E-waste sent for processing; on top of that, the environmental damage that the rudimentary processing methods cause must also be taken into account. In Moradabad, an E-waste processing site in India, a study found that air particulate levels averaged twice the global safe limit and lead air levels were 9.572μg/m3, 19 times higher than the global safe level. Furthermore, over 68% of the surveyed workers were suffering from most likely related cardiovascular diseases[13]. In addition to this, over 15 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide were produced in the shipping and processing of returned goods in 2020[14], exacerbating the enhanced greenhouse effect, and warming the planet.

Finally, the modern-day consumer demand for an “E-World”, in conjunction with a global drive towards net zero, will inevitably damage the environment through increased lithium mining and E-waste production. As the world looks to implement rechargeable batteries in everything from toothbrushes to cars, the demand for the element in question has risen. Between 2019 and 2030, the global demand for lithium is projected to increase from 263,000 metric tonnes to 2,300,000 metric tonnes in 2030[15]. According to a study conducted in Chile by Friends of The Earth, lithium mining has been shown to deplete fertile soil, endanger biodiversity, and exhaust water supply, especially in arid climates. 2,300,000 litres of water are required to produce one ton of lithium and a third of the world’s lithium comes from the Atacama lithium mine[16]. The depletion of aquifers and groundwater in the Copiapó region has displaced indigenous farmers and threatened the water supply to almost 175,000 people living in the city of Copiapó. It is perhaps ironic that the strive for global net-zero emissions has influenced this consumer drive for lithium reliant rechargeable batteries. The UK government has pledged to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles by 2030. However, an average electric vehicle requires 8kg of lithium, on average[17]. Not only is the process of producing lithium environmentally harmful, but when it becomes E-waste yet more problems arise. A lithium-ion battery contains a flammable electrolyte that can explode or cause fire if discarded batteries are not properly handled. In a documentary based in Agbogbloshie, an infamous Ghanaian E-waste dump, a worker describes how a young man ‘lost his life’ as a consequence of ‘an explosion’[18] caused by the mishandling of a lithium-ion battery. With the predicted rise in demand for lithium at a governmental, corporate, and consumer level, the extent of potential environmental damage is a frightening prospect.

Modern consumer behaviour, influenced by corporate and governmental policies, in the ever-rising demand for electronic goods, has created damage to the environment which seems only to be worsening. From the contamination of waterways, soil, and air in E-waste sites, to the poisoning of children and the displacement of indigenous Chileans, monitoring and combatting rise of E-waste and the processes surrounding its creation must become a priority for those at the helm of the world’s fight against climate change.

[1] Statista – ‘The World’s Production of E-waste’

[2] Theroundup.org – ‘The Problem of E-waste’

[3] Apple market reports 2014-2018

[4] Apple environmental sustainability report 2019

[5] Basel Action Network – ‘Scientific Articles’

[6] Shantou University medical study (Toxins in Guiyu)

[7] ibid

[8] Walter Isaacson, ‘Steve Jobs’

[9] Apple Sales Report 2010-2022

[10] John Harris, ‘Planned obsolescence: the outrage of our electronic waste mountain’

[11] McKinsey, ‘The great consumer shift: Ten charts that shown how US shopping behaviour is changing’

[12] ibid

[13] Dr Charu Gangwar, (Pollution Ecology Research Lab, Department of Botany, Hindu College, Moradabad, India)

[14] Statista, The Costs of Online Returns

[15] Statista, M. Garside

[16] Wealth Minerals LTD  ‘Our Projects in South America’

[17] US department of Energy Science and Engineering

[18] ENDEVR, Agbogbloshie Documentary

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