The growth of the digital health market entails the appearance of newer and newer fitness trackers, wearables, health sensors – leaving the older models to the sock drawer or worse, the dustbin. What happens to health tech’s waste and what options do people have who don’t want their gadgets to end up in the trash towns of developing countries?

More plastic than fish in the oceans soon

“If the present trends continue, by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic than fish”, said Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations to mark World Environment Day in June 2018. Not only the oceans started to be filled up with waste. The world looks more and more like a colossal dustbin. Dozens of videos on social media show sea shores buried under a thick layer of thrown-away plastic, metal or other non-degradable materials – from discarded computer screens through orange juice bottles until cotton buds for cleaning ears, all usually in the third world. The landscape is devastating, and what’s more depressing – the animals dying due to it. The dead albatross, its stomach bursting with refuse. The turtle stuck in a six-pack ring, its shell warped from years of straining against the sturdy plastic.

Humanity suffocates from its own waste – and lets the planet, its fauna and flora drown with it. The report of the World Bank Group says that driven by rapid urbanization and growing populations, global annual waste generation is expected to jump to 3.4 billion tons over the next 30 years, up from 2.01 billion tons in 2016. A huge part of that waste comes from households, from individuals, from people – from us. An attempt at reducing our own trash on the individual level should be on everyone’s mind – as we don’t (yet) have a second planet Earth.

That’s why we decided to look around how the digital health scene deals with its own waste. How environmentally conscious do companies think and act regarding their products? What options do users and patients have to get rid of their used wearables or trackers in an eco-friendly manner?

Garbage in the Beach and beautiful seascape in the background, Egypt, Red Sea. Source:

E-Waste – the fastest growing category of trash

As the majority of digital health products constitute electronic devices made of metal, plastics, ceramics, and other non-degradable materials, e-waste is the most likely category that discarded medical innovations would fall into. According to the report of the UN, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Solid Waste Association, e-waste has been the fastest growing category of trash that in 2016 alone added up to a hefty 44.7 million metric tons (49.3 million tons) worldwide. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that the US discarded 258.2 million computers, monitors, TVs and mobile phones in 2010, of which only 66 percent was recycled. Nearly 120 million mobile phones were collected, most of which were shipped to Hong Kong, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The shelf life of a mobile phone is now less than two years, but the EU, US and Japanese governments say many hundreds of millions are thrown away each year or are left in drawers.

As the market of consumer electronics widens year after year also due to the growth in the global sales of mobile phones – which reached 455 million units in the first quarter of 2018, the scale of the e-waste problem will only increase. And not enough people seem to pay attention. According to the above UN report, only 20 percent of the e-waste was officially tracked and recycled adequately in 2016. The remaining 80 percent? It’s not consistently documented, and most of the useless and outmoded electronic end up being dumped, traded or recycled in haphazard, potentially harmful ways. When disposed of incorrectly, for instance by open burning, e-waste can harm people and the environment.


Where does your discarded tracker end up?

As the health technology market is rapidly expanding, both health technology producers and users have to ask the question what happens to the millions of health trackers, wearables and sensors after they are no longer in use. What’s the fate of the millions of cables and chargers? Will the old versions of VR googles, AR glasses, 3D, printed devices be thrown into the bin – or get hidden in a sock drawer and discarded 5 years later when no one remembers what they were used for anyway – as soon as the new models reach the shops?

An American company, polled 1,000 people to get to know what they do with unused gadgets. It turned out 42 percent kept their devices for at least two years or longer without using them ever again, 10 percent got rid of the gadgets after 7 months to a year, and 30 percent of Americans kept the equipment only for maximum half a year. Nevertheless, you don’t necessarily have to throw your sleep tracker next to your Nokia 3210 feature phone, there are several ways how to recycle or reuse wearables or trackers.

Numerous companies have the option to receive old electronics – some offer discounts if you bring in your old product and replace it with a newer version, others are just accepting any type of electronics – including fitness trackers and health sensors. In the US, Amazon, Gazelle and Best Buy all have their trade-in programs. More recently, large tech companies including Apple and phone carriers like Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA and AT&T have begun trade-in programs for cell phones, offering consumers credit toward buying new phones. The companies then often resell the old cells internationally.


Recycle Health, the solution for digital health trackers

If you happen to have a tracker that you don’t need but assume that others could make good use of it, send it to Recycle Health. No matter whether you have an unused Whithings, Garmin, Jawbone or Fitbit, it will get a second life with the three-year-old non-profit organization.

They established the so-called Tracker Lending Library: they package 25 refurbished Fitbits and send them to doctors’ offices in low-income regions, for physicians to give to interested patients. With a little help with setup and use, patients can walk out the door with a working tracker on their wrist, for use until their follow-up visit. The organization also supports the initiatives of the ChildObesity180 organization, which aims at reducing child obesity among others with the help of digital health trackers and wearables. The overall goal of Recycle Health is truly noble: to help older and lower income individuals have access to devices – and get to know how the gadgets are used. The Medical Futurist team hopes that others will take this example – we need more initiatives like that: the combination of eco-consciousness and access to technology.


How to recycle pacemakers?

A Dutch company, Orthometals, responds to a question that rarely crosses people’s minds. What happens to the millions of prosthetics, breast implants, and pacemakers now in use after someone dies? Breast implants and replacement hips are currently not removed at death as there is no apparent reason to do so. However, what happens at cremation? Titanium or cobalt implants do not burn up, and any batteries will explode when heated.

To tackle this problem, the company started collecting metals – and by now, they accumulate about 250 tons of such materials every year from crematoriums around Europe. Afterward, Orthometals sells the hardware to automobile and aeronautical industries.

Nevertheless, pacemakers can also be reused without modifying their functions. As a second–hand implant may be the only way that millions of people can afford this life–saving equipment, the charity Pace4Life collects functioning pacemakers from funeral parlors for use in India.


What can you do as a health tech user?

As you see, there are not that many options for reusing or recycling wearables, trackers or health sensors – and unfortunately, the majority is most likely to end up either as an element in our “not used things” storage box or as e-waste somewhere in Africa. By the way, there’s hope to meaningfully recycle e-waste in developing countries, too. We bow down in front of the genius of the innovative lab in Lomé, the capital city of Togo in West Africa, where they built the first “Made in Africa” 3D printer using e-waste.

Anyhow, if you don’t want your smartwatch, sleep tracker or step counter to turn into e-waste, donate it to a charity such as Recycle Health to make use of it. We truly need a lot more similar organizations in the US, in Europe and practically in every corner of the world to help reuse and recycle useful but unused technology. Otherwise, we should also ask digital health tech companies directly whether they have any waste management policy – and if they don’t have, what’s the reason behind that? E-waste is a serious problem, and everyone has to make the right steps – no matter how small those are – to make our planet more sustainable.