Technology has become integrated in almost all aspects of our daily lives. However, with each new launch or product announcement, the life span of electronics shortens as consumers replace outdated technology or upgrade to new devices. This has created one of the fastest growing waste streams worldwide and is quickly becoming a major environmental concern as landfills pile up. In fact, by 2030 it’s estimated that global electronic waste (e-waste) will reach 75 million metric tons (Mt)—almost double the amount we see today.

A transformation is currently underway to reduce our carbon footprint, and a team in India believes a 5G scenario with blockchain could be part of the solution. Using the two technologies, the team created an incentive-based management system that tracks and monitors an electronic product throughout its entire lifecycle. Blockchain’s ability to provide a digital signature in each device makes this system a viable solution, whereby each device can be tracked from the point of manufacturing to the point a product is properly disposed.

As depicted in Figure 1, the e-waste management system is comprised of five different categories along the supply chain: manufacturer, supplier, retailer, customer and e-waste center. As the product moves along each part of the chain, new data and information is logged on the blockchain network. Information such as the amount of electronic items produced to the amount of e-waste generated are all saved on the network.

A smart contract is also incorporated for all involved parties. Having a contract in place makes it easier to implement incentives, which through a government-imposed tax, is delivered in the form of ether, a cryptocurrency, once the product reaches the end of its life cycle.

Figure 1: The team’s system that connects all entities involved in the product cycle

According to Amit Dua from the Birla Institute of Technology & Science in India, while there has been a global push to combat e-waste’s growing problem, current systems lack transparency, accountability, and proper incentives to manage and collect waste. Additionally, many countries today don’t require its citizens to properly dispose of e-waste or prohibit the export of devices to developing countries like India or China. While there are laws in place that cover some toxic e-waste, such as cathode ray tubes, a large portion is still not regulated. The misalignment of sectors within the supply chain has also made regulation even more difficult.

The team’s objective is to alter users’ behavior by making the disposal process more enjoyable. Providing incentives when a product is properly disposed of or removing them if a product doesn’t reach the e-waste center, ensures that waste can be managed effectively and sustainably. The solution also promotes accountability because from the moment a product leaves the retailer to when it lands in the customer’s hands, the system collects that information and detects any deviations.

The team’s decentralized application system is outlined in Figure 2. Each user, once registered, is classified based on their position on the supply chain. Product details including type of device, specification, price, and manufacturing date are all included so tracking can be made easy each time a product moves along the supply chain. Users are also assigned addresses linked to a metamask wallet that contains ether for when incentives are processed by the e-waste center.

Figure 2: The sequence diagram of the team’s proposed system

So how can this system be implemented in our daily lives?

According to Amit and his team, one way is through public-private partnerships between a government body and private entity. Not only can these types of partnerships solve the organizational problems of merging different sectors, but it can also serve as an economic boost by generating jobs. The team predicts that the current rate electronic devices are being produced could lead to a multi-billion dollar industry for e-waste management. Amit and his team also suggest the potential in breaking up e-waste to determine which parts can be reused to produce other products, further helping the environment.

For more information on blockchain and smart contracts, visit the IEEE Xplore digital library.