The majority of businesses today rely on electronics to stay operational and relevant in their given market. As the demands of business increase, so do our electronic needs. Companies are continually looking for the newest, fastest, and smartest technologies that can better handle their busy day-to-day workload.
With the ever-accelerating pace of technological innovation in our society, we need to be conscious of how we dispose of our electronics when these items reach the end of their useful lives. What do you do when your computer isn’t fast enough, your conference room television isn’t big enough, or that old printer that you used to start your small business needs to be retired?
Rubicon’s mission is to end waste. In this article, we are going to look at how the reckless disposal of electronic devices only contributes to the ever-growing accumulation of electronic waste (e-waste). We will cover what e-waste is, how it impacts our health and environment, and how businesses can implement an effective electronic recycling program.
- What is E-Waste?
- The Problems with E-Waste
- The Effects of E-Waste on the Environment
- Electronic Recycling Solutions for Your Business
- How to Recycle Your Business’s E-Waste
- The Benefits of Electronic Recycling
- The Scale of E-Waste and Electronic Pollution
- Electronic Recycling Facts and Statistics
- Rubicon’s Electronic Recycling Solutions
What is E-Waste?
Electronic waste (e-waste) refers to any electronic device that is no longer useful, functional, or has become obsolete.
Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing segments of our nation’s waste stream. It encompasses all broken, unusable, or outdated/obsolete electronic devices, components, and materials. E-waste also includes items that can be recycled through an electronic recycling program, which encompasses electronics that are going to be reused, resold, salvaged, or recycled.
The Problems with E-Waste
There tends to be a false sense of security when it comes to electronics. Oftentimes, we consider our devices to be non-hazardous at the end of their lives. Unfortunately, this is far from the case.
This could be attributed to the sleek surfaces that make it hard to see them as waste. When you see images of old televisions and laptops in landfills, you can only see their seemingly benign exterior. But it’s what you can’t see that makes electronic waste so dangerous.
The insides of our devices can contain a host of harmful materials, including:
- Arsenic; and
- Brominated flame retardants.
All of these elements can have a severe human impact if they aren’t handled correctly and exposure occurs. They can cause organ damage, neurological damage, and severe illness. These issues are a risk to the workers that directly handle e-waste and pose a threat to communities that are shipped excess e-waste.
Electronic Pollution: The Effects of E-Waste on the Environment
Electronic waste has a very real global impact on the earth’s air, water, and soil:
The Impact of E-Waste on the Atmosphere
Burning e-waste can be used as a disposal method or way to extract valuable metals such as copper. However, the burning of computer monitors and other electronics can lead to the release of pollutants (such as hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and brominated dioxins) into the air.
This affects our overall health and air quality measures.
The Impact of E-Waste on Water
Heavy metals—such as lead, barium, mercury, and lithium—can be found in mobile phones and computer batteries. When these contaminants are improperly handled or disposed of in a landfill, they can leak into the soil and can eventually reach the groundwater.
After reaching groundwater, heavy metals can then make their way into streams, ponds, lakes, and rivers. These heavy metals make the water tables toxic and unusable for the communities, animals, and plants that rely on them.
The Impact of E-Waste on Soil
Soil is the conduit through which heavy metals find water, and therefore does not go unaffected by these harmful contaminants. E-waste has a strong negative impact on the “soil-crop-food pathway.”
The soil-crop-food pathway is exactly as it sounds—crops grow in the soil and food comes from the crops. When the soil is contaminated by heavy metals seeping out of e-waste, the crops, and the food that they provide, are contaminated. This can lead to illness and restricts viable farmland for clean food production.
Electronic Recycling Solutions for Your Business
Since e-waste is so detrimental to the environment, what is the best way to dispose of it? In a modern workplace (or a remote-working environment) full of frequent technology upgrades, how can companies work to improve their electronic waste recycling initiatives?
There are simple ways for your business to exist responsibly with technology as not to make the electronic pollution problem worse.
Here are three steps to help your business handle its electronic recycling, and tackle this ever-growing form of waste.
1) Make Informed Purchases
The best way to avoid having to deal with e-waste is by preventing electronics from becoming waste in the first place. This method of e-waste management starts at the purchasing stage.
Oftentimes, companies will make bulk electronics purchases for employee use. Rather than looking for the least expensive option with the best reviews, do some research beforehand.
Finding the best electronic options for your company’s needs can be as simple as having a conversation with a local retailer. By asking questions such as “Which brands have the lowest return rates?” and “What models do you need to repair the least?” purchasers can gain real-world information to make the most informed—and sustainable—decisions.
2) Repair or Upgrade Your Electronics
When it comes to electronics, older doesn’t always mean obsolete. This is an area where your IT department can help. Having IT evaluate the cost-benefits of repairing or upgrading will let you know if your workhorse printer should be put out to pasture, or if it just needs some simple fixes.
Plus, additional memory, hard drives, or software upgrades can make old electronics feel newer and work more efficiently. This will lower the rate of e-waste being sent out of your company.
Don’t forget DIY options. For those who are so inclined, there are a wide variety of basic repair tutorials available online for many office electronics—finding a fix may only be a few keystrokes away.
3) Sell, Swap, or Donate Your Electronics
When your office electronics have truly reached the end of their road, it’s important to remember one thing: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Whether you choose to sell or donate your company’s used electronics, it’s crucial to ensure that your IT department has thoroughly wiped any electronic equipment of company information prior to offloading it.
Donating is perfect for still useful but outdated electronics. This form of e-waste management is not only a great way to reduce electronic pollution—it could also make your accounting department happy. Tax deductions can be a valuable product of donating electronics. Plus, donating allows your business to put items such as computers, phones, or tablets in the hands of those who need them the most, including underfunded schools or children in developing countries.
How to Recycle Your Business’s E-Waste
Sometimes, an electronic item is so far gone that repairing, selling, or donating it is no longer an option. In these situations, the time is right to recycle your electronics.
Before implementing an e-waste recycling program, check with your state’s specific legislation for any pre-established regulations or guidelines. Currently, “Twenty-five states plus the District of Columbia have enacted legislation establishing a statewide electronic waste, or e-waste, recycling program,” according to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL).
Old computers, office equipment, televisions, phones, and general consumer electronics all have a higher purpose than spending the remainder of their days in a landfill. In fact, recyclable electronics should be seen as commodities and potential revenue generators. Depending on your business’s size, location, and type of e-waste, your old purchases could generate new cash flow.
The key to successful electronic recycling is doing so safely. Businesses can partner with e-waste recycling programs, such as those offered by Rubicon®, that offer pick up and/or drop-off locations for end-of-life electronics. Electronic recycling programs could even offer you compensation for your recycled products.
The Benefits of Electronic Recycling
Producing the brand new electronics that eventually become e-waste requires a large number of resources like metals, plastics, and glass. The process of creating those three resources requires a hefty volume of fossil fuels, chemicals, and water.
Take the creation of a desktop computer, for example. It takes 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to create a single computer. Smartphones are not quite as resource-draining as desktop computers, but they come close. The good thing about smartphones and cell phones is that, though they take resources to create, they are made with precious metals such as silver, gold, palladium, and copper, meaning these metals can be recovered if recycled correctly and reused for future electronic production. According to the United Nations, electronic waste is 40 to 50 times richer with deposits of precious metals than all the mines on earth.
With this said, only 10-15 percent of the gold in e-waste is successfully recovered internationally. With a higher rate of e-waste recycling and resource collection, companies can reuse existing metals and materials instead of mining precious raw metals from the earth.
The Scale of E-Waste and Electronic Pollution
Over the past few years, e-waste has become one of the most rapidly growing sectors of the earth’s waste stream. The e-waste problem facing us as a global civilization has never been more significant.
Because we have evolved to be a use-and-throw-away culture, our smartphones aren’t the only gadget that fall victim to the upgrade. Our obsession with ever-advancing technology has placed a high standard on all of our products, demanding that each generation quickly improves upon the last.
The quick turn-over usually happens in our periphery because, with electronics, out of sight really is out of mind. Thus, the e-waste problem continues to grow.
As an example, how many of the items below have you or your business discarded in your lifetime?
Devices that Become E-Waste
- Cell phones
- Computer monitors
- Laptop computers
- Fax machines
- MP3 players (such as old iPods)
- Landline telephones
- Televisions (tube, plasma, and LCD, LED)
- CD players
- Video game consoles
- Virtual Reality (VR) gear
- Virtual Assistants (Amazon Echo, Google Home, etc.)
- Electric scooters
- Portable speakers
- Security cameras
- Professional and personal drones
- Modems and routers
- GPS Devices
- Smart bathroom scales
- Some thermostats
Electronic Recycling Facts and Statistics
- Much of what is labeled as “e-waste” is actually not waste at all, but whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for material recovery.
- Every year, over 50 million tons of electronic waste is created.
- Each year, around 1 billion cell phones and 300 million computers are put into production globally.
- In the United States alone, over 140 million cell phones are thrown into landfills every year. If all of these cell phones were recycled, it would save enough energy to power 25,000 households for one year.
- The United States is number one worldwide in terms of annual e-waste production. Americans throw away around 9.4 million tons of electronics every year.
- Recycling 1 million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 homes in a year.
- In every 1 million recycled cell phones, 35,274 lbs. of copper, 772 lbs. of silver, 75 lbs. of gold, and 33 lbs. of palladium can be recovered.
- Only 12.5 percent of e-waste is currently recycled.
- Every year, Americans throw out cell phones containing over $60 million in gold and/or silver.
- One ton of circuit boards are estimated to contain 40-800 times more gold and 30-40 times more copper than one metric ton of mined ore.
- According to the United Nations, 20-50 million metric tons of electronic waste is discarded globally every year.
- E-waste represents 2 percent of America’s trash in landfills, but it equals 70 percent of overall toxic waste.
- A study identified that producing a computer along with its monitor takes at least 1.5 tons of water, 48 lbs of chemicals and 530 lbs of fossil fuels.
- The amount of global e-waste is expected to grow by 8 percent each year. Roughly 80 percent of electronic waste generated in the United States is exported to Asia.
Rubicon’s Electronic Recycling Solutions
Rubicon is committed to a world without waste, and that includes electronic waste. We believe that no matter its size, every business can commit to more sustainable business practices. From transporting e-waste safely to having it properly recycled, we have the tools to keep your business sustainable and compliant with local regulations.
If you have any questions, or you are interested in learning more about Rubicon’s electronic recycling services, please contact us today.
Meredith Leahy is a Waste Diversion Manager at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.