The pandemic could reduce e-waste, but widen the digital divide

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We now have evidence that staying home to game or stream and chill out during the pandemic was pretty much a first world problem (or a privilege, depending on how you look at it). The proof is in a new report Published today by the United Nations University and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, looking at where the decline in sales of electronics and associated e-waste occurred.

The report looked at electronics consumption in the first quarters of 2020 and used that to estimate future e-waste. It projects that globally we have found that 4.9 million tons less e-waste has been generated compared to a ‘business as usual’ scenario without the pandemic. But that decline has been uneven around the world, the authors found. Electronics sales are estimated to have fallen by 30 percent in low- and middle-income countries, compared to just 5 percent in wealthier countries.

“The so-called digital divide is widening,” study co-author Ruediger Kuehr said in a statement. “The ability to adapt to digitization and make a living or simply own and take advantage of electronics is declining in some parts of the world.” Countries in North Africa, West Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia will be the hardest hit, according to the report.

On the other hand, high-income countries are expected to be solely responsible for a slight global increase in purchases of game consoles, mobile phones, laptops and electric ovens last year. In those countries, it seems that people did indeed go to screens (and maybe bake?) to while away their time during pandemic lockdowns.

Tech companies still managed to take advantage during the hellish landscape of 2020. Microsoft and Apple raked in the dough of gaming and computers. Samsung made more money last year than the year before. Amazon doubled its profits near the start of the pandemic. And the 2020 slowdown in low- and middle-income countries’ tech spending is expected to be temporary.

As more people buy more gadgets, e-waste accumulates and harmful materials such as mercury can end up in the environment. E-waste reached a record high in 2019 and only 17 percent was recycled. Much more can be done to extend the life of any gadget, increase recycling and make companies responsible for collecting the products they generate so that e-waste doesn’t pollute the environment, proponents say.