Our insatiable appetite for the latest and greatest electronics has left a wasteland of disused and unwanted electronic products in its wake. Electronic recycling is one way to cope with the millions of tons of e-waste that is generated each year, but unfortunately this industry is fraught with issues.
Developed countries literally dump their waste onto nations with cheap labor and low environmental and human health standards. So how do we, as consumers, overcome the challenges and recycle responsibly?
The difficulties of electronic recycling
In 2009, there was an estimated 2.37 million tons of electronics in need of end-of-life management but less than 0.6 tons (25%) were collected for recycling (source). So, why is such a small portion being recycled?
- Electronic equipment is inherently difficult to recycle. It is truly a mish-mash of materials, such as plastic and metal, which are difficult to separate. This makes e-recycling very labor intensive.
- Electronics are filled with toxic products. Many components contain mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants. Pulling these materials apart puts workers and the environment at risk if they are not handled properly.
- There is no incentive associated with e-recycling and it’s not always easy; it needs to be one or the other. Financial incentives such as bottle deposits can be enough to get people to recycle their bottles properly, but consumers often have to pay to recycle their electronics. If there’s no financial benefit, then people need recycling to be easy, such as placing it in a box at the end of your driveway for collection or having a strategically placed drop-off location such as a grocery store parking lot.
- Although some manufacturers offer buy-back and recycling programs, these are often poorly advertised.
- With some disreputable companies out there, consumers may not trust that their electronics are being disposed of responsibly. This video highlights an investigation by 60 Minutes that reveals some of the deceptions behind electronic recycling.
Click here to see the full report by 60 Minutes.
These challenges associated with electronic recycling have provoked governments to establish laws around e-recycling. You can find out more about electronic recycling laws in your state here.
Four steps to recycle your electronics responsibly
- First and foremost, avoid the temptation to always have the latest model. Do you really need the latest iPhone or does yours do everything you need it to? It’s our mass consumption that has made e-waste the fastest growing waste product. In 2009, 438 million new consumer electronics were sold (source), to a population of about 305 million.
- If the product is still working, give it to someone who can use it. Selling used electronics provides others an opportunity to purchase items they might not otherwise be able to afford. If you can’t sell it, consider donating it. Schools and non-profit organizations are often in need of electronic equipment, but it is critical to call first to see whether they could use your equipment. Please don’t just drop it off at the door and make it someone else’s problem. There are even organizations out there, such as Tech Soup Stock, that have computer refurbishing initiatives to provide computers and service to non-profit organizations – so consider donating to an organization like this.
- Look into national manufacturer programs. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of Plug-in Partners that support electronics reuse or have recycling programs available to household consumers.
- There are currently two certification programs in the US for electronics recycling facilities, R2 Solutions and e-Stewards. Each of these certification bodies has a set of standards that address environmental and public health, worker health and safety, and security (both of your data and of the facility). These organizations consider the whole of the recycling process and chain of custody as part of the certification process. So, before heading to a recycling facility, look at the list of R2 Solutions certified facilities and e-Stewards certified facilities to find a certified recycler.