The year 2020 was one of tribulation and change, both in the US and abroad. As the world transitions into a new decade, how will the aftermath of the past year affect the future of tech recycling?

When it comes to recycling technology, strategies and outcomes are often dependent on those manufacturing technology, who themselves cater to those who purchase and use technology. A few decades ago, most households only had one phone, which was rarely replaced. Today, every single person has their own mobile phone, if not more than one, and upgrades happen almost yearly. Desktop disposal rates once dwarfed laptop disposal rates, but that has gradually reversed.

What changes await the tech recycling industry in 2021?

Here are some predictions.

More Demand = More Waste

As our technology has grown more advanced while simultaneously growing more affordable, demand for electronics devices has exploded. Progress is so swift that consumers have struggled to keep up, which has only led to more demand. People want to have the latest and greatest tech products, while the industry renders last year’s models obsolete with extreme rapidity. The result? Increased tech demand leads to increased tech waste.

This cycle isn’t expected to slow down any time soon. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated it. According to a report by the consumer research firm NDP Group, 2020 marked a year of historic growth for the electronics market, with sales growing by 17%. Those sales are expected to gain additional 12% growth during the first quarter of 2021. And while this number is expected to lower by around 2% by the end of the year, it still marks a noticeable increase from pre-pandemic sales numbers.

Furthermore, with pandemic restrictions gradually relenting concurrent with the successful rollout of new 5G networks, sales of mobile tech products like phones, chargers, headphones, tablets, and lightweight laptops are expected to surge. Considering that these devices are some of the most frequently discarded—the average consumer replaces their mobile phone once every 18 months—the amount of electronic waste is also expected to climb.

Just as increased tech demand creates increased tech waste, increased tech waste creates an increased demand for tech recycling.

The United States Is Catching Up

Although the total amount of electronic waste is on the rise worldwide, in the US more and more that discarded tech is being recycled. The most recent numbers available from The Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership show that waste management efforts in 2019 resulted in the US having a 15% e-waste collection rate.

Although this number puts the US far behind a handful of countries—Norway which has a rate of 72%, Sweden is at 70%, the UK is at 57%, and France is at 56%—the vast majority of developed countries have similar rates—Japan is at 22%, China is at 16%, Canada is at 14%, Australia is at 11%, and Russia is at 6%. More importantly, however, this number indicates growth. In 2015, for instance, the US e-waste collection rate sat at 12%, with each subsequent year showing consistent improvement.

This means that the US is catching up when it comes to electronic waste management, and even doing better than some other countries. This trend is likely to continue as recycling technology, instead of merely throwing it away, becomes a more visible—and viable—option.

Economic Cost Vs. Environmental Cost

As noted above, educating consumers about the benefits of tech recycling and the dangers of unrecovered e-waste has helped the US make significant headway in improving its collection rate. Indeed, the non-profit Waste & Resources Action Programme has identified several barriers which tend to prevent people from recycling, one of the largest of these barriers being a lack of awareness regarding what items can be recycled, how to do it, and why it’s important.

Whatever progress is made by those within the tech recycling industry, it is up to the consumer to actively choose to recycle. This makes outreach, education, and promotion key pillars of 2021’s e-waste reduction strategy.

One subtle shift in the future of e-waste that has the potential to greatly reframe pro-recycling messaging is the phasing out of legacy technologies. With fewer cathode-ray-tube televisions left in the wild, the amount of toxic substances—lead, mercury, etc.—in the waste stream is slowly diminishing. While that’s a good thing for the environment, it’s balanced out by the surge in computing technologies on the market. This, in turn, is leading to an increase in the amount of rare and valuable metals—gold, platinum, etc.—that are ending up in landfills.

While the environmental effects of e-waste remain a major concern, this shift nevertheless suggests that economical concerns are set to play an increasingly large role in promoting recycling efforts, and that recyclers could benefit from re-emphasizing the economic impact of e-waste.