We tend to go through electronics fairly quickly. These electronics are made of valuable resources and materials such as metals, plastic, and glass, which all take a lot of energy to mine and manufacture. Many of the items that are no longer useful to us can be refurbished or recycled to be reused, but what happens to all of the other electronics that no longer work or are outdated?
If not disposed of properly, they can end up in landfills and harm the environment by leaching chemicals into groundwater or streams, which in turn releases toxins into the air and even other animals, including humans. Luckily, there are small steps we can all take to not only reduce our e-waste, but make sure that it is disposed of in a way that mitigates their environmental impact.
What Is e-Waste?
Electronic waste, otherwise known as “e-Waste,” “e-scrap,” or “end-of-life electronics,” are any electronics such as old phones, computers, or tablets that are at or are nearing the end of their useful life. These are often discarded, donated, or given to a recycler, but depending on how old the electronics are, some may be refurbished to use again while others can be stripped of their precious rare metals to be recycled into new electronics.
Harmful Effects of e-Waste
Roughly 40 million metric tons of electronic waste are produced globally each year, and about 13% of that weight is recycled mostly by pickers in developing countries. Informal recycling markets in places such as China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines handle anywhere from 50-80% of all electronic waste by shredding, burning, and taking apart the products.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that by 2020, electronic waste will double, computer cast-offs will increase five times, and cell phones will increase 18 times. Electronic waste can affect many systems in the human body because they can contain a lot of toxic components including mercury, lead, cadmium, polybrominated flame retardants, barium, and lithium. When these metals are being burned, they create very fine particulate matter that can lead to health issues such as pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, birth defects, brain, heart, liver, kidney, and skeletal system damage if you are exposed to them for too long.
How to Properly Dispose of e-Waste
Some electronics live out their shelf life and are ready to be disposed of. However, a large majority of what is labeled as “e-waste” is made up of electronics that can be reused, refurbished, or donated. Some of the electronics we throw away can also be stripped of their salvageable materials and used on other devices that are being created or refurbished. By understanding what counts as e-waste, we can help reduce it.
What Counts As e-Waste?
The list of acceptable items that count as e-waste is long, but most electronics such as fax machines, keyboards, printers, routers, surge protectors, game systems, and TV’s are acceptable to recycle. Instead of knowing all the items you are able to recycle, refer to this shorter list of items that you cannot bring to a recycler:
- Air conditioners
- Carbon monoxide detectors
- CFL light bulbs
- Fluorescent lamps and tubes
- Fluorescent light ballasts
- Freezers and refrigerators
- Hazardous waste
- Incandescent light bulbs
- Laser range finders
- Smoke detectors
- Thermometers and thermostats
Instead of replacing your iPhone or Android every six months, take it to get refurbished! A lot of the replacement parts that are used to repair it are the same ones that are used on new phones, so your phone could actually be restored to the way you bought it. It’s also a good idea to look into your seller’s or manufacturer’s warranty plan. Some companies guarantee may their refurbishes for as short as 90 days, but others may guarantee them for up to a year.[5,11]
Recycle or Donate Old Electronics
To put things in perspective, for every one million cell phones that are recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. Americans alone dump phones that contain over $60 million in gold and silver every year! We can reduce this waste of precious metals by finding local recyclers that will take out old electronics.
You can find a lot of nonprofit organizations and local communities that offer options to recycle or donate your old electronics. Some cities even sponsor collection days for electronics! If you’re looking for a place to recycle your old electronics, this clickable map  will find e-cycling centers in your area. If we recycle one-million laptops, we can save the amount of energy equivalent to the electricity used in 3,657 homes in one year. That’s a lot of energy.
Beware of Fake Recycling
Though you have the best intentions, some “recyclers” will only take the electronics that you give them and not actually recycle them the way they should be. Instead, some companies will load it into a container and ship it to a developing nation.
You’re able to see this more commonly with old televisions since it costs money to properly recycle them and they can get paid for exporting to buyers in developing countries for the reusable metals.
Go to a Certified Electronics Recycler
The Environmental Protection Agency encourages all e-recyclers to become certified by demonstrating to an accredited, independent third-party auditor that they meet certain standards to recycle and manage electronics. Once certified, the independent accredited certifying body continues to check that the recycler is holding up the standards.
The standards that recyclers must meet provide benefits to both the people and the environment. They provide advanced management best practices, offer a way to assess the environmental, worker health, and security practices of entities managing used electronics, and have strong environmental standards that maximize reusing and recycling. Lastly, they make sure that there is safe management of the materials by handlers and require destruction of any old data on your used electronics.[9, 10]
How to Avoid a Fake Recycler
It can be difficult to spot a fake recycler, but the best way to tell is by asking who is paying for the event. If it’s not a retailer and you don’t see any sort of sponsor, it’s likely that the recycler is fake. This strategy is especially useful if the company is offering to collect your old TV’s for free – if no entity is paying for the recycling costs, they are most likely exporters.
Hold a Cell Phone Recycling Drive or Fundraiser
If you’re a parent, you can speak to your child’s school and try to organize a drive where the students and their parents can donate any old electronics they don’t need anymore.  This can also help the school get rid of old computers that have been sitting in storage. Once you collect all of these old devices, you can find a recycling center to drop them off where they can either be refurbished or disposed of as they need to.
Other Ways to Reduce Your e-Waste
Resist the Urge to Upgrade
Retailers cash in on your excitement for the latest phones, TVs, and computers every year. But it helps to take a step back and ask yourself if you actually need that new phone, that new tv, or that new laptop. Taking care of the devices you already have and using them until they are no longer functioning will save you money and reduce your contribution to e-waste. Most phones can be used for at least two years if you take good care of them. When the battery stops holding a charge as long, take it in to be replaced to prolong the life of your device. If you cracked your phone screen, have it repaired.
Use the Cloud
One of the easiest ways to reduce your e-waste is to stop relying on external hard drives like flash drives. Start storing the majority of your information in the clouds like Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, or Amazon’s AWS cloud. This way you can access all of your files when you need them, have all your data backed up across multiple platforms, and ditch all the little data sticks. Flash drives are hard to keep up with anyway, and if you lose them, that data can end up anywhere.
- Cleaning Up Electronic Waste (E-Waste). (2017, December 11). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/cleaning-electronic-waste-e-waste
- The Human and Environmental Effects of E-Waste. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.prb.org/e-waste/
- Health consequences of exposure to e-waste: A systematic review. (2013, October 30). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214109X13701013
- Bufete, T. (n.d.). Should You Buy Refurbished Electronics? Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/electronics/should-you-buy-refurbished-electronics/
- The Earth Matters – Recycle All Electronics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://turtlewings.com/blog/11_facts_about_e-waste
- E-cycling begins with you. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ecyclingcentral.com/
- Beware of Fake Recycling. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.electronicstakeback.com/how-to-recycle-electronics/beware-of-fake-recycling/
- Electronics Donation and Recycling. (2018, July 18). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/recycle/electronics-donation-and-recycling#where
- Certified Electronics Recyclers. (2017, February 24). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/smm-electronics/certified-electronics-recyclers#01
- Electronic Waste Items List. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.steubencony.org/Files/Documents/publicworks/electronics_waste_items_list.pdf
- M. (2017, December 28). 10 Tips for Managing E-Waste. Retrieved from https://theartofsimple.net/10-ways-to-recycle-your-technology-and-manage-e-waste/
- How Kids Can Help Solve The E-Waste Problem. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.electronicstakeback.com/how-to-recycle-electronics/resources-for-kids/