Can we recycle old electronics? Fortunately, there is quite a lot we can do to reduce the amount of e-waste we generate. From repairing what we can to recycling what we can’t, this problem can be addressed if we work together. However, the first step in that journey is developing an understanding of the problem.
E-waste, or electronic waste, is a term that many of us have heard, and there’s a clear reason: the rate at which we generate e-waste is expanding rapidly, and it is a present danger to human health and the environment we live in. Electronics require products from hundreds of mines, factories, and transportation companies to assemble, causing an enormous carbon footprint that is difficult to mitigate. That same complexity also makes them hard to repair when they break and nearly impossible to dispose of safely without special facilities.
What Is E-Waste?
E-waste is any electronic device that is discarded after it stops working or becomes obsolete. 53.6 megatonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated in the most recent measured year (2019), and that number has only increased since then. Future projections suggest that in just six short years, that number could skyrocket to 74.7 Mt. That’s over 9 kg of electronic waste generated for each person on the planet.
A substantial portion of this number can be attributed to the increasing use of electronics in modern society. At the beginning of the 2000s, it wasn’t very common for high school students or even adults to have cell phones. Now, it’s uncommon to find a person in their teen and adult years without one, and many younger children even have access.
Recycling Old Electronics and Planned Obsolescence
Planned obsolescence is the practice of ensuring that the version of a product a company sells a customer at any given time is rapidly outclassed, becomes unsupported, or will be in need of repairs that the user may not be able to execute themselves. Planned obsolescence takes many forms, but what they all have in common is that they work to guarantee profit for the company. In essence, the version of the product they sell will need to be replaced relatively soon by the consumer.
Some companies achieve this by making electronics unnecessarily hard to repair. A common practice is to use fasteners that require custom tools or knowledge to remove, thus disabling a person’s ability to get access to a battery or other simple element of the product. Other companies may unnecessarily fuse pieces to a product’s motherboard, meaning that a whole new motherboard must be obtained when a single-piece replacement should have been able to restore function.
Some companies simply stop producing software or security updates for older equipment, dooming that equipment to gradually stop working or become susceptible to hackers.
No matter the avenue of implementation, planned obsolescence forces consumers to purchase a new device sooner than they normally would have. Most of those old devices end up in the trash.
Examples of E-Waste
There are six primary types of e-waste generated today. Each of these types comes with its own disposal requirements and associated challenges.
Temperature Exchange Equipment
Temperature exchange equipment includes coolers, freezers, refrigerators, and heat pumps. These contain coolant and refrigerant chemicals that are immediately hazardous if released into the environment. In addition, the associated metals are difficult to recycle and can be harmful to the environment.
Screens & Monitors
Television screens and computer monitors are made with either cathode ray tubes or LCD fluids, which are immediately hazardous if breached. In addition, they contain glass, plastics, and other materials that are difficult to recycle together.
While more contained and easier to handle than the first two, large appliances like washers and dryers have greater quantities of heavy metals in them than most of their cousins. These can pose a large, long-term problem when they are dumped inappropriately.
Laptops & Cell Phones
Laptops and cell phones are incredibly intricate devices. They harbor all the problems that come with both screen disposal and high-energy battery systems. Both elements may rupture and react with the trash around them.
While lamps may seem like an innocuous entry on this list, it is very difficult to standardize their handling. Certain older lamps may contain liquid mercury in the lighting elements. Newer LED bulbs contain motherboards and diodes made up of hazardous materials.
This is a fairly broad category made up of many small electronic devices. These devices can include vacuum cleaners, microwaves, electric kettles, toasters, hair dryers, and practically any other electronic device you can think of. These devices contain circuitry that should be reclaimed, or it will be a hazard to the environment.
Why E-Waste Management Matters
We’ve established that E-waste is growing, but what many people don’t consider when they dispose of their e-waste is what it does to the environment. Worse, e-waste processing takes a great deal of skill to do right, but rather than do that, many companies have chosen to simply ship it to countries where regulations are weaker. This leads to dramatically worsening health outcomes for the people in the areas where low-budget disposal happens, like Sub-Saharan Africa and impoverished parts of China.
Here are some negative effects of e-waste.
E-waste leaks heavy metals into groundwater sources, which can stay there for decades and be very expensive to treat. Even if the groundwater we access for human consumption can be treated, the same cannot be said for animals that are utilizing the same groundwater sources – and those animals can still end up on a human’s plate. Even after putting in the work to recover an area that has been damaged by heavy metal contamination, the problem can come back to visit later on.
Heavy Metal Accumulation
Heavy metals like beryllium, cadmium, mercury, and lead are known to increase the rates of many chronic diseases, in particular cancers and neurodegenerative diseases. This is why the US has been aggressively regulating heavy metals since the 1960s. These metals can be absorbed by plants and fungi that are grown in the soil. This means that even if a patch of soil is theoretically safe for you to spend time on, crops grown in the soil can hold concentrations of heavy metals that remain above hazardous levels for decades.
Persistent Organic Pollutants
Persistent organic pollutants are compounds that do not naturally break down in the soil. Many of these compounds, including the polychlorinated biphenyls crucial in the production of electronic motherboards, can cause cancer. This has led to the deep poisoning of places where improper processing of e-waste takes place, inflicting high cancer and mortality rates on the surrounding population.
Waste Leads to Increased Mining
Extracting metals from the earth already carries a heavy environmental toll. From the fossil fuels that it takes to power the machines to bring them to the surface to the environmental destruction caused by clearing land in order to mine it effectively, increased mining poses multiple risks to the planet. Most of the materials in e-waste can be recovered more cheaply and efficiently than if they were mined anew. Honoring the work that went into resurfacing those materials in the first place saves significant financial and environmental resources.
Burden on Already Strained Nations
As mentioned, e-waste is frequently dumped in developing nations. These nations are already strained to provide for their citizens, and dumping also puts an immense health risk onto the backs of those who are least able to respond to it. What is accepted as a way to put food on the table can rapidly degrade these communities’ natural resources in a way that makes the community unfit for other businesses and increases their need for medical aid.
Recycling Old Electronics
While e-waste creation is at an all-time high, there are a number of things you can do in order to reduce that waste stream. Many of these actions will put money back in the pockets of the people providing the services without costing you much other than a little bit of time, which is something that we can all appreciate.
Take Your Recycling to a Certified Center
Here’s how to recycle old electronics that you might have. The EPA has worked to put together a set of certification guidelines to help make it easier to tell who is doing the work correctly and who isn’t. By using a certified recycler through the e-Stewards program, you can ensure that your e-waste is being handled with the care and attention that it requires. That way, it won’t cause environmental damage or create a burden on others.
The e-Stewards site has a function where you can find a recycler near you to take your e-waste, often at no cost. They’re able to do this because recyclers can make a profit from the precious metals in most electronics. This allows the group recyclers to sustain themselves and do the work that needs doing. So, you’re keeping people doing the good work in business by giving them your e-waste.
While manufacturers make it difficult for the average person to restore damaged products, many electronics can be repaired by experienced hands. There are people who specialize in restoring and relisting products that have been repaired. These products are then labeled as “refurbished” since they are not truly new items. Most refurbished items will go on to have a long and serviceable life after they’ve gotten the necessary repairs and can be just as good and reliable as the new ones if you use a reputable reseller.
Also, by buying refurbished products from corporations and resellers, we’re able to show that these products still have value to the people making them. This can encourage corporate-level expansion of refurbishment programs.
Resell or Donate
Putting your used electronics up for sale – even broken ones you know only need a single part or two replaced – allows refurbishers in your network to pick up pieces that they would otherwise have to go to specialty dealers to access. This is the other side of refurbished products: diverting your equipment that needs a little love and care to people who are able to give that care.
Right to Repair
Unfortunately, reclaiming products only goes so far against planned obsolescence. Corporations have stepped in to legally prevent people from repairing the products they have purchased. From tractors to computers, many corporations have actually criminalized the act of repairing certain products.
Fortunately, there is a significant movement of people working towards a movement known as the “Right to Repair.” These people want to give consumers back the right to repair their own equipment and prevent companies from actively working to prevent such repairs. Writing to your government representatives can go a long way toward making repair a practical reality once again.
While writing government representatives is key, you can also write the corporations that build your electronics directly to say that you want the products that you buy to last longer, work better, and be easier to repair. By letting them know that this is a priority to you and that it affects your purchasing decisions, you may help pressure them into rolling back actions that push products into the e-waste pile more quickly. Even before legislation is passed to improve the situation, you can do so directly.
Take Initiative to Recycle E-Waste
E-waste is one of the biggest problems our planet faces today. It poses a significant threat to both the earth and human beings, and unfortunately, the people of already disadvantaged countries are bearing the brunt of the toxic waste. However, you can do something about it. Although you have much less power than the corporations who must own the lion’s share of this problem, now you have a few ways that you can start to improve your e-waste streams personally.
Better yet, you can take action against some of the systems that make e-waste such a problem to begin with. The next steps are up to you and your community. The more people you tell about the e-waste problem, the more of a difference you can make. Read the Boon Room for more information and articles related to environmental impact.
Jenny Weatherall is the co-owner and CEO of Eminent SEO, a design and marketing agency founded in 2009. She has worked in the industry since 2005, when she fell in love with digital marketing… and her now husband and partner, Chris. Together they have 6 children and 3 granddaughters.
Jenny has a passion for learning and sharing what she learns. She has researched, written and published hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics, including: SEO, design, marketing, ethics, business management, sustainability, inclusion, behavioral health, wellness and work-life balance.