Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a well-documented problem for today’s waste management industry. In 2012, a United Nations report projected a 33 percent increase in global e-waste over a five-year period, estimating that 2017 will see 65.4 million tons of e-waste produced. To put that figure in perspective, that is the same weight as 200 Empire State Buildings.
One of the factors that makes proper e-waste management so challenging is a lack of consumer awareness about how to properly dispose of electronic products. Despite the scale of the e-waste problem, surprisingly few consumers know much about why proper e-waste disposal is important or where they can take their electronics to be recycled or correctly handled.
Read on for details about some of the most important things consumers should know in order to help get the e-waste management problem under control.
What is e-waste?
As a category, e-waste covers a broad range of items: essentially, any electric or electronic device that is battery-operated or that contains circuitry or electric elements. Mobile phones, computers and laptops, printers, televisions, and stereos in addition to appliances like washing machines, dryers, and refrigerators are some of the most common e-waste items.
Why is proper e-waste disposal important?
You might not think of your mobile phone as a potential source of poison, but the fact is that different types of e-waste contain toxic elements. Many of these elements can be hazardous to both human health and the environment if they are simply tossed into a landfill and left to leak. Flame retardants, lead, beryllium, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride are just some of the many toxic chemicals found in standard electronic products.
What can e-waste be turned into?
Your laptop might be dead, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a new life once its recyclable components have been repurposed. Additionally, when extracted properly, mobile phone batteries and phone metals can be used in the production of new phones. When extracted from used devices, other metals like gold and platinum are sometimes used to create jewelry, art pieces, or metal plates.
Where can e-waste be taken for proper disposal?
E-waste recycling programs vary depending on where you are. Helpful places to find more information on programs near you are the Environmental Protection Agency and groups like the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which supports the e-Steward electronics recycling initiative. The e-Steward designation indicates a responsible recycler that has been certified to follow high ethical and environmental standards in the disposal, recycling, and refurbishment of old electronics.
If you can’t find a convenient e-Steward in your area, you can also try programs offered by manufacturers or local retailers. For example, Staples accepts many electronics for recycling in partnership with HP, and Best Buy will accept e-waste items, including televisions up to 32 inches.
Trade-ins are also becoming a popular way for big companies to encourage e-waste recycling. In 2014, for example, Apple launched a new iPhone trade-in program enabling users to bring in old iPhones to Apple stores for recycling and receive credit towards a new phone in exchange.
When should e-waste be recycled?
In general, it’s best to take e-waste products to be recycled as soon as they have reached the end of their useful lives. The older an electronic device, the harder it can be to effectively extract, repurpose, and recycle its different components. This is because recycling techniques are constantly evolving to keep up with how quickly electronics themselves are changing.
What this means is that the longer an unused electronic device sits in your desk drawer, the harder it will be for modern recyclers to process it properly. Recyclers may no longer have access to the recycling methods that were developed for older items.
What are the laws about e-waste recycling?
Legislation about e-waste recycling is very confusing to sort through, as no federal law dealing with e-waste has ever been passed. One of the biggest problems that e-waste legislation attempts to deal with is the export of e-waste to other nations, many of which have little or no monitoring of e-waste disposal in place and consequently are thriving centers for improper and unsafe disposal methods. Unfortunately, the two attempts to introduce the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2013 both proved unsuccessful.
How can I be sure my e-waste is being recycled properly?
Unfortunately, there are many fake electronics recycling programs out there that are making a considerable profit from exporting e-waste items to developing countries that strip the products for scrap metal rather than properly recycling the items. This scenario can have serious health and safety consequences for the workers, who are responsible for sorting through and disassembling the waste without any monitoring of their working conditions.
In the absence of federal legislation as described above, it’s therefore very important for consumers to make sure that they are taking e-waste products to a legitimate recycler. Programs like e-Stewards are a good place for background checks, or you can do your own research online.