E-waste is one of the world’s fastest-growing environmental issues.
E-waste is expected to develop tremendously due to rapid technological advancements and increasing reliance on electronic devices.
This article analyses India’s expanding electronic waste crisis using data and explores how artificial intelligence (AI) affects e-waste and global inequality.
E-Waste Global Crisis
The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 reported a record 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste worldwide in 2019, up 21% in five years.
By 2030, it will reach 74 million metric tonnes, virtually doubling in 16 years. E-waste is rising due to rapid technical breakthroughs, shorter device lifespans, and rising global demand for consumer electronics.
E-waste in India
India’s electronic waste problem is unique because it is the second most populated and fastest-growing economy.
It produced 3.2 million metric tonnes of e-waste in 2019, placing it third only behind China and the US.
By 2025, India’s e-waste creation would reach 10.1 million metric tonnes at a 21% CAGR.
Several reasons contribute to India’s e-waste crisis:
Increasing middle-class purchasing power and consumer electronics hunger
E-waste recycling is a booming informal sector that uses dangerous and environmentally destructive processes.
Lack of customer understanding about proper e-waste disposal and recycling
E-waste infrastructure and regulations are lacking.
Impacts of AI on E-Waste and Inequality
The rapid development and integration of AI technologies into daily life may worsen the worldwide e-waste problem.
As AI-enabled gadgets become more popular, demand for GPUs, CPUs, and memory chips will rise. E-waste will undoubtedly increase due to this demand boom.
Additionally, AI may increase global inequality.
AI-driven economic growth may help wealthy nations with strong tech industries, but developing and underdeveloped nations may struggle owing to a lack of resources, infrastructure, and skilled labour.
The digital divide may widen as these countries become more tech-dependent, worsening global inequality.
E-Waste Management in India
India needs a multi-pronged strategy to handle the e-waste situation. Methods include:
Strengthening e-waste regulations:
India’s e-waste management legislation must be revised and enforced to cover producers, consumers, recyclers, and the informal sector.
Building formal recycling facilities with environmentally friendly technology is essential for proper e-waste management.
Awareness and education: Consumers can learn about proper e-waste disposal and recycling through public awareness campaigns and educational programmes.
Encouraging Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR):
Holding manufacturers accountable for their products’ end-of-life management can encourage the design and production of more sustainable and recyclable electronics.
Fostering innovation and sustainable product design:
biodegradable materials and modular designs can help lengthen product life cycles and reduce e-waste.
Bridging the digital divide:
Addressing AI-driven inequality involves inexpensive technology, infrastructural development, and capacity building in developing and disadvantaged countries. AI and e-waste will assist these nations.
Electronic devices, even AI-enabled ones, require the extraction of metals and minerals, including copper, gold, silver, and rare earth elements.
As electronic demand rises, so does the need to mine these resources, which can have serious environmental and societal impacts.
Deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, and biodiversity loss often result from extraction.
Mining can also contribute to climate change by emitting greenhouse gases. The scarcity of these materials raises questions about the sustainability of electronic production, especially as device demand rises.
Child labour and forced labour have also been related to mining operations in some places.
These concerns emphasise the necessity of responsible sourcing and sustainable practises in the electronics industry.
Changes in Skills and the Digital Divide
The workforce’s abilities are changing as AI and computer technologies drive the global economy.
Digital literacy, data analysis, programming, and other technological skills are becoming increasingly crucial across businesses.
This trend may disproportionately affect developing and disadvantaged countries, which lack excellent education and technical infrastructure.
The digital gap and a shortage of skilled workers can make it harder for these countries to engage in the AI-driven economy.
Poor countries’ AI-driven crisis
The emerging AI and computer-driven economy present many issues for developing and disadvantaged nations.
These issues include –
Insufficient infrastructure: Many developing countries lack the infrastructure, such as reliable internet connectivity and energy supply, to allow AI technology adoption.
Technology access: Poorer countries may struggle to buy and use modern electronics and AI-driven technologies due to high pricing and import hurdles.
Inadequate education and training: The lack of a robust educational system focusing on technology and AI capabilities can limit the creation of a trained workforce capable of participating in the AI-driven economy.
Brain drain: Skilled people in emerging countries typically leave for better opportunities elsewhere, diminishing the local talent pool and limiting tech industry growth.
Economic disparity: AI-driven prosperity may not be evenly distributed, increasing income inequality and societal instability in developing and poor countries.
Governments, international organisations, and private sector actors must work together to bridge the digital gap to address these issues and avoid a crisis.
These could be:
Investing in digital infrastructure: AI technology adoption requires reliable and affordable internet and energy.
Promoting inexpensive technology: Lowering import barriers and encouraging local manufacture can help developing and poor countries afford electronic products and AI-driven technologies.
Education and training: Strong educational institutions that emphasise technology and AI skills can help create a skilled workforce for the AI-driven economy.
Encouraging local innovation: supporting local entrepreneurs and innovators can help developing countries build robust tech industries.
Fostering international cooperation: Working with developed nations and international organisations can help spread AI and technology expertise, resources, and best practises.
Developing and impoverished countries can better participate in and benefit from the AI and computer-driven economy by tackling these difficulties, guaranteeing a more equal and sustainable future for all.
The extraction of metals and minerals for electronic device fabrication has been studied for its environmental impact.
These studies’ key findings are:
The European Commission determined that mining rare earth elements (REEs), which are used in many electrical products, had a major environmental impact.
For instance, mining REEs can yield up to 2,000 metric tonnes of harmful waste per tonne. This trash pollutes water and harms ecosystems (1,2).
Energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions: The extraction and processing of electronics metals like aluminium and copper are energy-intensive and emit greenhouse gases.
Aluminium and copper production account for 1% and 0.5% of worldwide CO2 emissions, respectively, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) (2).
Deforestation and biodiversity: mining metals and minerals for the electronics industry can deforest and destroy habitats. In Indonesia, tin mining, fueled by consumer electronics demand, has destroyed more than 100 km2 of tropical forest between 2000 and 2014 (3).
Water pollution: electronic gadget metal mining pollutes water, according to a UNEP report.
Mining activities utilise lots of water, which can become contaminated with heavy metals and pollutants.
This polluted water can subsequently enter local water supplies, creating health and environmental problems..
These findings emphasise the need for sustainable mining and alternative electronics materials.
The electronics sector may minimise mining’s environmental impact by supporting responsible sourcing, lowering mining’s environmental impact, and investing in sustainable alternative research.
Global efforts are needed to address the growing electronic waste dilemma. India is one of the world’s largest e-waste generators, so it needs comprehensive solutions.
AI’s integration into daily life complicates e-waste and may worsen global inequality.
Sustainable practises, innovation, and bridging the digital divide can reduce the adverse consequences of e-waste and ensure a more equal and sustainable future for all.