Electronic Waste. Everyone has it, yet no one knows what to do with it…
Image by : EPA.GOV
Do you know where your electronics come from before you buy them in the store?
Where was it manufactured? How is it made?
Where does it go when we're done using them?
How does it affect our environment and our communities living near landfills & e-waste manufacturing sites?
The answer to those questions is very similar to most products we buy and use. However, because there is always a downside to the many things we buy, how we dispose of our electronics matters!
Collect raw materials
Manufacture those materials into electronics
End of life choices: to be donated, off to landfill, or be recycled
To get a bit more in depths…
Image by : Pedro Henrique Santos
First, we collect what we call “ raw materials”. This includes things like iron, palladium, platinum, copper, oil, even silver and gold! These elements are found in most of our high-tech electronics and in order to get them, we have to dig for them.
Mining is a term we use for removing these elements from the earth. These precious metals, minerals, and elements are called “finite resources” which means they're “non-renewable” and we will eventually run out and are in short supply. This process uses large amounts of energy to do which creates greenhouse gas emissions and drains natural resources. It also pollutes the air, groundwater, and soil around the mining sites, and can negatively affect plants, animals, and human health. More on that later.
Once these materials are collected, they are transported and processed in facilities to make those things we know and love, our electronics.
There are hundreds of components and steps needed to craft our gadgets and many of them are dangerous to humans and animal life alike. Once created, they are sent to stores across the globe to sell to, well, everyone!
USAGE & COLLECTION
The next step in this life cycle is when they find their way home with us.
The lifespan of those electronics can vary a lot! Some electronics like USBs and power blocks can be used for many years and for many different products. Older generations of electronics were Initially designed to last 40+ years, but today, unfortunately, the average lifespan ranges from 1.5 to 13 years, with most averaging 4-5 years.
Image: a heaping pile of e-waste courtesy of Robert & Fran Jermain
Why is it like this?
As manufacturing companies have evolved, newer business models were designed to only have our electronics last a little while before they're in need of “upgrades”, or to be replaced. This is called “planned obsolescence”, this business strategy is where products are designed to become useless in a short amount of time to force consumers to buy more products, but that is a story for another day.
Once our electronics have been used to the end of their life, are broken, or aren't useful to us anymore due to the evolving technological advances, they tend to pile up in our homes. We tend to hoard our electronics in hopes of possibly finding a use for them someday but unfortunately, end up collecting dust or are tossed in the trash.
Sustainably handling e-waste helps us to reduce precious materials going to waste, reduces negative impacts on the environment like air, water, and ground pollution, reduces negative health impacts to animals and humans alike, and reduces greenhouse gases to help fight climate change.
Instead of wasting these materials in landfills to pollute our environments which over time leaches those toxic elements into our soil, groundwater, and air as they decay. Or our piles of old stuff cluttering our homes there is a better solution to our electronic waste. We have many options as consumers to find sustainable and responsible ways to reduce, reuse and recycle our e-waste. Simple put:
THE THREE R’S
REDUCE - the number of electronics we buy
REUSE - what we already have or gift to someone who can use it
RECYCLE - what is broken or unusable anymore
REDUCE - OUR CONSUMPTION
By reducing how much we buy we put less pressure on our environment to make new products.
We throw away BILLIONS, (that's right with a “B”) of dollars of precious metals and materials because we really aren't sure what to do with our spent electronics. By reducing how much we buy, that is less money we spend, less electricity we use, less we pay for that electricity, and further reduce greenhouse gases to fight climate change.
REUSE - GIVE TO A FRIEND, OR DONATE
It sounds simple, but donating gently used electronics and tech for reuse extends the lives of valuable products, and minerals and gives others a chance to use something they may possibly not have been able to otherwise. We can donate those electronics we don't use anymore to local nonprofits, shelters, schools, or friends & family that can use them. Gently used computers and equipment don’t need to be dismantled in order to make a difference. There are a bunch of nonprofits out there that give technology to people and organizations in need. Smaller items that are still in good condition can be dropped off at any Salvation Army or Goodwill. There are other charities that put your old equipment to a more specific use so keep an eye out for those places..
There are many companies out there with pretty solid incentives to trade in or buy back your old gear for new ones, for cash back, and for discounts! Companies like Apple are one of the biggest! Next time you need a new phone, bring it into the store with you to see what you can get for it! Here is another example, Say you went to Best Buy, got a new computer, and now that is 10 years old, you don't know what to do with it. You can Trade it in for a discount on a new one, SCORE
RECYCLE - AT A FACILITY NEAR YOU
You may be surprised that there are many retail stores that will collect, and recycle your spent electronics for you! Places like Apple, Staples, Dell, Office Max/Office Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Target, Best Buy, your cell phone carriers, and more will take your electronics and make them a-new! Each store has its own rules and limitations to what you can drop off so make sure to check before you go. For example, most Apple stores will take any and all electronics even non-apple brand products and there is no limit to how many chargers or old cellphones you bring in!
While we are talking about Apple, they also have this incredible technology created in 2016 then reinvented in 2018 that can change how we recycled their electronics. Her name is Daisy. A new robot capable of disassembling iPhones to recycle device parts. She is the most efficient tool Apple has to reclaim valuable materials used in iPhones.
Daisy is able to disassemble nine versions of iPhone and can sort their high-quality components for recycling with ease! Lisa Jackson, Aples vice president of Environment, policy and social initiatives said “At Apple, we’re constantly working toward smart solutions to address climate change and conserve our planet’s precious resources,” She continues, “We’re also thrilled to introduce Daisy to the world, as she represents what’s possible when innovation and conservation meet.”
But what about batteries? There are many places that do not take batteries. However, you can use websites like Call2Recyle.org, Earth 911 to help you sustainably recycle them! Drop them off or receive prepaid labels and boxes from say, HomeBoyRecycling.com to mail your electronics for recycling. There are also websites like RecycleStuff.org, EPA.gov which can help you find ways to sustainably recycle your electronics with a click of a button! Depending on your area, make sure to check with local practices before outsourcing to far away recycling centers, saves fuel and the climate
You see, there are many options out there, we just need to educate our community about electronic waste and best practices on what to do with them when we no longer need them.
If and when you are in need of new electronics, try investing in companies that do good for our environment. Environmentally responsible electronics use involves not only better end-of-life options, but also purchasing new green equipment is designed with environmentally preferable characteristics.
Green electronics also :
Contain fewer toxic components,
Use more recycled materials in new products
More energy efficient (e.g., showing the Energy Star label)
More easily upgraded or disassembled
Use minimal packaging
Offers leasing or takeback options
Meets performance criteria and shows they are more Environmentally preferable
IT'S A NO-BRAINER!
Do you have a pile of cables, old phones, or another tech that you are not sure what to do with?
JOIN OUR MOVEMENT to help recycle as many electronics as we can
TAKE THE E-WASTE PLEDGE!
Electronic devices and technology continue to advance and increase in number all over the world. They're critical to our way of life, and to our ever-growing economy. Unfortunately, these technologies come at a devastating price. The challenges we face are the increasing threats to human and animal life alike. Protecting human health and the environment from the potentially harmful effects associated with improper handling and disposal has now become dire.
The raw, precious metals, minerals, and elements used to create our electronics also have a darker side. Valuable materials such as copper and gold, are at risk of exposure to over thousands of harmful substances, like lead, mercury, nickel, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons just to name a few. People who work mining these materials or near locations where they process these materials are at high risk for serious health impacts like respiratory problems, reduced thyroid function, inflammation, DNA damage, and an increased risk of chronic diseases later in life like cancers and cardiovascular disease. Not good stuff.
On top of this workers involved in the manufacturing process can be exposed to over a thousand chemicals also.
A complex combination of toxic and volatile materials including chlorinated and brominated substances, photoactive chemicals, poisonous gases, acids, solvents, heavy metals, plastics, and plastic additives, have devastating impacts on the environment and workers' health. Many of those compounds are linked to increased rates of cancer, reproductive damage, congenital disabilities, and serious illnesses.
Here are a few but not all of the chemicals involved in the manufacturing process:
Acetone - Nose, throat, lung, and eye irritation, damage to the skin, confusion, unconsciousness, possible coma
Arsenic -Nausea, delirium, vomiting, dyspepsia, diarrhea, decrease in erythrocyte and leukocyte production, abnormal heart rhythm, blood vessel damage, extensive tissue damage to nerves, stomach, intestine, and skin, known human carcinogen for lung cancer
Arsine - Headache, malaise, weakness, vertigo, dyspnea, nausea, abdominal and back pain, jaundice, peripheral neuropathy, anemia
Benzene- Damage to bone marrow, anemia, excessive bleeding, immune system effects, increased chance of infection, reproductive effects, known human carcinogen for leukemia
Brominated flame retardants - can build up in tissues, cause cancer, disrupt hormones, harm the reproductive system, thyroid system, and endocrine system,and cause neurodevelopmental problems
Cadmium - Damage to lungs, renal dysfunction, immediate hepatic injury, bone defects, hypertension, reproductive toxicity, teratogenicity, known human carcinogen for lung and prostate cancer
Hydrochloric acid -Highly corrosive, severe eye and skin burns, conjunctivitis, dermatitis, respiratory irritation
Lead - Damage to renal, reproductive, and immune systems, spontaneous abortion, premature birth, low birth weight, learning deficits in children, anemia, memory effects, dementia, decreased reaction time, decreased mental ability
Methyl chloroform - Headache, central nervous system depression, poor equilibrium, eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, cardiac arrhythmia
Toluene - Weakness, confusion, memory loss, nausea, permanent damage to brain, speech, vision, and hearing problems, loss of muscle control, poor balance, neurological problems and retardation of growth in children, suspected human carcinogen for lung and liver cancer
Trichloroethylene - Irritation of skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, dizziness, drowsiness, speech and hearing impairment, kidney disease, blood disorders, stroke, diabetes, suspected human carcinogen for renal cancer
A record 53.6 million tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was produced globally in 2019 — the weight of 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2; $57 billion in gold and other components discarded mostly dumped or burned
74% of consumers planning to purchase gifts this holiday season intend to buy consumer electronics as gifts.
The United States generated 6.92 million tons of e-waste, about 46 pounds per person, in 2019. It recycled only 15% of the material. https://earth911.com/eco-tech/20-e-waste-facts/
“(Perhaps in part because of COVID-19 and increased reliance on technology for home offices and entertainment), the amount of dumped e-waste is expected to total 57.4 million tonnes in 2021, according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum”
Only 17.4% of e-waste discarded in 2019 was recycled, the United Nations reports. Also, “global e-waste (discarded products with a battery or electrical plug) will reach 74 Mt by 2030 — almost a doubling of e-waste tonnage in just 16 years.” Moreover “This means that gold, silver, copper, platinum, and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at US $57 billion — a sum greater than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries — were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.”
It takes 500 pounds of fossil fuel, 50 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to manufacture one computer and monitor, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in a year. EPA
For every million cell phones we recycle, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. EPA
For every million cell phones we recycle, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. EPA
500 pounds of fossil fuel, 50 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to manufacture one computer and monitor,
The United Nations estimates that global e-waste volumes could increase by as much as 39% to 74.7 million tons a year by 2030. EPA
Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in a year. (EPA)