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As a species, we produce a huge amount of trash. The average person now throws away 4.3 pounds of garbage per day, marking an increase of more than 30% percent since 1960. Over the course of a year, all that waste adds up to a barely-believable 2.6 trillion pounds of garbage around the world.
And as our march into the digital age continues to gather pace, more and more of that waste is electronic in nature. Unlike “traditional” rubbish, of which approximately two-thirds can be composted, e-waste is harder to dispose of in a sustainable way. Apparently worms don’t like the taste of lithium batteries!
The more conscientious citizens of our planet have now started to take steps to recycle old gadgets. But is that actually a worthwhile endeavor?
What Is e-Waste?
All forms of electronic equipment have limited lifespans. It either becomes obsolete as technology moves on, or it simply ceases to function when internal components stop working.
It’s not limited to smartphones and laptops either. Think of how much electronic stuff you have in your home: microwaves, televisions, fridges, security systems, printers, DVD players, games consoles, etc. When you throw that stuff away, it has to go somewhere.
The United Nations estimates 20–50 million metric tons of e-waste is discarded every year. That’s the equivalent of 800 laptops every second. The United States alone is responsible for 9.4 million tons of it.
Sadly, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we actually only recycle 12.5% of our annual e-waste.
Why Is e-Waste Problematic?
As you know, plastics and other similar materials can take a long time to decompose. Depending on how the plastic was made, it can take anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years.
But the problem is more extensive than slow rate of decay. Electronic equipment is packed with harmful chemicals and metals, and is responsible for 70% of the world’s total toxic waste.
Metals and elements like mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, and chromium are present in everything from your laptop to your fridge. Cathode ray tubes, which are in old-school TVs and monitors, often use leaded glass in their back-facing side. Computer chips contain brominated flame retardant. The list of hazards is endless.
These toxins lead to environmental and health concerns.
Exposure to lead can affect a child’s mental development. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), brominated dioxins, and other heavy metals acidify rivers, killing fish and plants. Incinerating old chips discharge fine particles of glass, tin, lead, beryllium cadmium, and mercury into the atmosphere. Heavy metals that leach into the ground release toxic phosphor, affecting agriculture and the food chain.
You don’t have to be a chemist to understand this is all really bad news. And even if you recycle in an environmentally-friendly way, which is difficult, don’t forget there are also security issues to consider.
The Advantages of Recycling e-Waste
In theory, there are numerous benefits to recycling discarded electronics.
Obviously the aim is to minimize the environmental issues listed above, but also consider this: a single ton of circuit boards contains up to 800 times more gold than one ton of ore. Similarly, the same ton of circuit boards contains at least 30 times more copper than a ton of ore.
The environmental costs of extracting precious metals from ore are astronomical. The extraction, processing, and distribution of the metals requires a lot of energy. Everything from the machinery to the manpower has a negative impact on the planet.
Recycling could also reduce our energy bills. The EPA claims recycling one million laptops could save the same amount of energy as that used by 3,657 American homes in a year.
And what about the 65% of people in the world who don’t have access to a computer or smartphone? There are already programs in place to refurbish and repurpose discarded equipment to take the digital revolution to every corner of the Earth.
The e-Waste Recycling Process
I hope it’s now apparent that you should recycle your old electronics. No matter which country you live in, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an e-waste recycling company.
Theoretically, they’ll dispose of your devices according to a code of ethics:
- Reuse whole units by donating them to someone who can still make use of them.
- Repair and refurbish whole units.
- Recover and reuse any components or peripherals that are still working.
- Recycle unreusable constituent materials.
- Responsibly dispose of hazardous waste in permitted landfills. Each toxic material comes with its own strict process for disposal.
Watch Out for “Fake” Recyclers
But is everything as straightforward as it seems? In short: no.
Garbage is big business and there’s a problem: the old components in e-waste are worth less than it costs to recycle them, at least in the United States.
Vice.com’s Jason Koebler wrote a fantastic exposé on this situation and found that there was a burgeoning secondary industry of “fake recyclers” who are undercutting the legitimate sustainable recyclers.
Goodwill and Dell, Inc. Exposed as Exporters of US Public's Toxic Electronic Waste to Developing Countries https://t.co/iSS14GsZ3o
— ? Elven Lolita (@Taralen) December 1, 2016
These “fake” companies sell e-waste to scrapyards in developing countries, often in Southeast Asia. In turn, the scrapyards use cheap (and often underage) local labor to scan and salvage anything worth keeping, leaving the remnants in unmaintained piles. It doesn’t take long for all the environmental concerns listed earlier to start coming to the fore.
Amazingly, an industry watchdog used GPS trackers and found as many as 40% of electronics recyclers in the United States fell into this “scam” category.
How Can You Sustainably Recycle Your e-Waste?
There are lots of companies that’ll recycle your waste in the most efficient and environmentally-friendly way possible, but you’ll have to do your research. To make an informed choice, you need some background information.
Back in 1989, 185 countries signed an international treaty called the “Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal“. Termed the “Basel Convention”, it was the world’s first serious attempt at controlling the export of hazardous waste from developed countries to less developed countries. In 1995, an amendment was introduced that aimed to totally ban on the shipment of hazardous waste from OECD countries to developing countries, but it’s not been ratified yet.
As a consequence of the treaty, the Basel Action Network (BAN) was founded. Based out of Seattle, the charitable non-governmental organization campaigns to stop less-developed countries serving as a dumping ground for e-waste.
It runs several initiatives. For you, the conscientious consumer e-waste recycler, the most important is “e-Stewards”.
e-Stewards introduced a standard for the responsible recycling and reuse of electronic equipment. Companies that met the requirements are awarded the Certified e-Stewards Recycler certification. To get the certificate, recyclers must have a registered ISO 14001 environmental management system and pass two initial audits. Thereafter, they are subject to annual audits and performance requirements.
These are the companies you’re looking for. The e-Stewards website lists them all, as well as mapping the various drop-off sites.
Be Part of the Solution, Not the Problem
We all love technology. That’s why I’m an author for MakeUseOf and why you’re reading this article. But as tech-lovers, we have a responsibility.
Don’t harm the environment. Avoid subjecting people less fortunate than yourself to harm chemicals, metals, and working conditions. Don’t help to propagate companies with no morals who want to make a quick profit at our planet’s expense.
Do your research and become part of the solution, not the problem.
Did you know about the problems attached to e-waste? Let us know your thoughts on the situation in the comments below.
Image Credits: thieury/Shutterstock