What is E-waste, and Why is It a Problem?

Image Courtesy of Erik Mclean

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”
~ Fred Rogers

Digital Love

This post is for those people who use electronics, both young and old, so everyone. The main takeaway is understanding how toxic electronics are to the environment when they're not properly recycled.

Most of us, including me, love getting a new computer or cell phone, but what happens to our old electronics when we no longer needed or wanted?

It's not just cell phones and laptops that are getting tossed, E-waste includes:

  •   Monitors
  •   Televisions
  •   CD/DVD/Blue Ray Players
  •   Stereos
  •   Microwaves
  •   Refrigerators
  •   AC Units
  •   Video-game consoles
  •   Power Tools

Image Courtesy of Matthew Henry

I'm focusing on the more common devices in this post, but most of the ideas presented here apply to all e-waste recycling.  I have provided you with contacts for each state under, Find Where to Recycle E-Waste in Your State.  Reach out to the applicable entity and see if they will take your particular type of e-waste.

E-waste by the Numbers

In 2011 in the U.S.,  the EPA estimates that nearly 3.4 million tons of E-waste occurred. Currently, only 25% of U.S. and 20% of international E-waste gets recycled, with the other 75% sent to landfills and incinerators.  This growing dilemma is no longer just a problem in the U.S.; it's a global issue.

We scrap about 400 million units per year of consumer electronics. The shame is that many of these items are repairable. If they are beyond repair, they contain valuable materials like gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, iron, and aluminum that could be recycled.


The EPA Has Stated That If

1 Million Cell Phones Were Recycled It Would Result in the Recovery of:

33 lbs. of Palladium

 75 lbs. of Gold, 

772 lbs. of Silver 

35,000 lbs. of Copper

Recycling electronics is not like recycling other products; they are challenging to recycle. Unfortunately, safely and adequately recycling E-waste often costs more money than the materials are worth.

Image Courtesy of Matthew Henry

Where did it Go?

What happens with the 25% that is supposedly recycled? Unfortunately, most recycling firms take the easy road; instead of recycling, they export. As a result, unwanted electronics are often donated to third-world countries in Africa and Asia. The complex web of logistics, governmental gamesmanship, and corporate maneuvering that make up the international recycling market requires a blog all in and of itself.

I spent several hours researching the international recycling trade that took me down countless rabbit holes and provided me with conflicting data. It is an interesting topic, though, which requires a deeper dive beyond this post's scope. However, if the topic interests you, I recommend researching it yourself to gain a little perspective on how massive the situation is.  

Why is E-waste so Bad for the Environment?

Many deadly constituents in E-waste require careful handling; otherwise, they do immense harm to humans and the planet. Electronic waste is one of the most significant threats to the health of our environment.

Toxic heavy metals like lead, Nickle arsenic mercury, cadmium, beryllium, PVC plastic, and hazardous chemicals (such as brominated flame retardants) are some of the lovely killers hidden in electronic devices.

Exposing E-waste to heat releases toxic chemicals such as dioxins into the environment. If buried, they leach these assassins into the soil and groundwater, especially during the summer months.

E-waste adds insult to injury because electronics take much longer to decompose than other recyclables, so the toxic materials remain present in the environment indefinitely. 

Image Courtesy of Matthew Henry

Studies indicate a link between E-waste in landfills and threats to human health. For example, researchers took air samples from large E-waste dismantling sites in China. They discovered that the products of recycling e-waste are detrimentally harmful to human respiratory and cardiovascular systems.  This news should not be surprising to anyone.

How do we dispose of E-waste?

One of the easiest ways to dispose of E-waste is to contact a company specializing in its disposal. In addition, many E-waste services do not charge to pick up your old electronics, or alternately you can drop them off at their location free of charge.

For larger projects, specialized dumpster services can provide containers designed to hold E-waste while you contact a recycling location. As an example, Oregon E-Cycles provides free recycling of computers, monitors, and television sets.

Image Courtesy of Maruf Rahman

Before E-waste is recycled, it first gets inspected to determine whether it gets refurbished or recycled. Then, once it is ready to be recycled, the device is taken apart, and the materials are organized into separate categories to determine what's useable or needs further processing.

Determining which parts can be reused or renovated is a vital part of the process because the toxic metals and chemicals need to be disposed of carefully. 

Due to the toxic materials in E-waste, many waste management companies will not accept old electronics in regular trash pickup or curbside recycling services. These same poisonous materials also make it illegal to throw old electronics into the trash in many cities. To avoid being fined or contributing to environmental pollution, properly dispose of your E-waste.

Find Where to Recycle E-Waste in Your of State

Simply click on your states name to link to where and how to recycle E-waste in your area.

Note: Unlike Greywater Harvesting, 48 out of 50 states have E-waste programs, and the other two are working on it. However, even though your state may not have a program, it will likely have recycling contractors who will take your E-waste. Again, Google is your friend to help you find one in your area.

  •   You can take your recyclable E-waste to Staples stores or Best Buy
  •  Do a cell phone recycling drive/ fundraiser in your school or business
  •   You can see if computer repair shops will take E-waste for parts
  •   You can learn to fix broken gadgets yourself
  •   Call 1-800-GOT-JUNK - Experienced in providing E-waste recycling and pickup services

What should I do with my old cell phones?

With the rate of cell phone ownership increasing every day, replacing your old phone with the latest model has become a standard for many phone owners.

Image Courtesy of Volker Glätsch

Here are some ways you can dispose of or reuse your old cell phone:

  •   Trade your old phone in when buying a new one
  •   Sell your working phone online to a friend or a family member
  •   Keep your old phone as a backup or experimental phone
  •   Donate your old phone to a charity or nonprofit organization
  •   Take your old phone to an electronics recycling facility
  •   Ask your phone retailer if they offer phone recycling
  •   See if your waste management service accepts electronics

How do I properly dispose of batteries?

The proper way to throw out old batteries all depends on the type of battery you have. Alkaline batteries, the most common household battery types, are safe to throw away with your regular trash in small quantities.

Image Courtesy of John Cameron

However, car batteries and lithium batteries used in phones and computers- are not safe to be left in landfills.

Here are some ways you can get rid of old batteries:                       

  •   Take your batteries to a local electronics recycling facility
  •  Visit a local electronics retailer and leave them in designated bins
  •   Throw away all AAA, A.A., 9V, and D-cell batteries in your trash can

Looking Forward

We need to look beyond just recycling E-waste to the issue of how quickly and the volume of which we consume electronic devices.

I know it can be a pain in the backside to use dying technology versus the adrenalin rush when we get our hot little mitts on a new piece of newness, but I think we can do better with a bit of effort.

Image Courtesy of Mathew Henry

Here are a few ideas to help you manage your devices:

  •   Use technology until it dies, or it can't effectively get the job done anymore. 
  •   Resist the urge to be an early adopter, which would increase the rate and volume of your consumption.
  •   Maximize the life of your devices. Think of them as valuable tools to be respected and appreciated
  •   Buy from sustainable consumer tech companies – Check this article on Forbes for the 10 Most Sustainable Consumer Tech Companies
  •   Buy less technology. – I know, I know, but it needs to be said

Who knows what new technologies are being developed in labs to make electronic devices more sustainable, but we can't wait for those breakthroughs; we need to take responsibility now.  Reducing your E-waste output shouldn't be a difficult task but rather one that gives you peace of mind for stepping up and doing your part.