Over the past few years, electronic waste, or 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 greater.
Nearly a decade ago, smartphones didn’t exist – at least not how we think of them today. Now, nearly two-thirds of Americans walk around with their faces bathed in the glow of the latest models.
Did someone say new iPhone?
But honestly, let’s start there. Between June 29th, 2007 and November 3rd, 2017 there have been fourteen iPhone releases – from the original iPhone (First Generation) to the latest iPhone X. If you are one of the 90.1 million U.S. iPhone users today, it is probably safe to say that you have moved on past that original phone since its supported lifespan expired on June 20th, 2010. The oldest iPhone model that is still supported is the iPhone 5S (that model was released on September 20th, 2013).
Because we have evolved to be a use-and-throw-away culture, iPhones aren’t our only gadgets 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.
Answer a few simple questions:
1. Is the computer you have now, the first you have ever owned?
2. Are you still sporting your original Nintendo, Sega, or Xbox gaming system?
Maybe if you’re a sucker for vintage, but not likely.
3. Are you still watching TV on that 75-pound box that takes up half your living room?
So that begs the question… Where did all of our obsolete and broken electronics go?
What is Electronic Waste (E-Waste)?
Electronic Waste (e-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 It encompasses all broken, unusable, or outdated/obsolete electronic devices, components, and materials. In addition, e-waste also encompasses items that can be e-cycled (electronics that are going to be reused, resold, salvaged, or recycled).
This makes sense as our technology growth rate continues to accelerate exponentially. As previously mentioned, technology seems to become all but obsolete only a short time after it’s purchased. That 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.
Here are some basic examples of common electronics that quickly evolved and turned previous versions into electronic waste.
How many of the items below have you discarded in your lifetime?
– Cell phones
– Computer monitors
– Laptop computers
– Fax machines
– MP3 players (or iPods)
– Landline telephones
– Televisions (Tube, plasma, and LCD, LED)
– CD players
– Video game consoles
Here is a list of some of the more recent electronic items that will most likely render their predecessors useless. You may have the newest versions of the following, but think back to the older models that have been discarded:
– All smart devices (iPhones, iPads, iWatches, Fitbits, Kindles, Nooks, Amazon Fire Tablet, etc.)
– 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
The effects of e-waste
Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle are terms that most people commonly associate with items such as paper, plastic, and glass. The need to recycle these items is understood because of the global impact that they can have when their only purpose is to take up space in a landfill. But what about e-waste?
E-waste can be some of the most dangerous discarded items but they are rarely seen as such. Why is that? The reason often comes down to their packaging.
There is definitely a false sense of security when it comes to our electronics being non-hazardous when they become waste. Part of the problem is the packaging of the devices. Their sleek and appealing exteriors make it hard to see them as waste. When you look at a landfill image of stacks of old TVs and laptops, for instance, you only see the benign exterior. It’s what you can’t see that makes electronic waste so dangerous.
According to facts presented by the Electronics Takeback Coalition “Electronic scrap components, such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful components such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants.” Additional components such as mercury and arsenic can also be present. All elements listed can have severe human impact through exposure.
If these items aren’t handled correctly they can cause organ damage, neurological damage, and severe illness not only in the workers that handle them directly but also within the communities of the developing countries where they are shipped.
The threat comes from exposure during recycling and disposal efforts. The harmful components listed above can leak into the ground as they are packed into landfills. They can also be released when the items are incinerated, a common method for disposal.
*NOTE: The United States, and other economically established countries, handles some e-waste recycling but the EPA estimates that 25% of recyclable electronic waste is shipped away. Read more on that here.
How doe e-waste problems affect the environment?
At this time the effects of improper e-waste disposal are not well known. However, e-waste problems have a very real global impact on the earth’s air, water, and soil.
The air pollution impact of e-waste:
Burning e-waste can be used as a disposal method but can also be a way to get to valuable metals such as copper. The problem with this method is that burning can also release pollutants into the air. For instance – when computer monitors and other electronics are burned, they create cancer-producing dioxins that are then released into the air. Yes… that’s the same air that we breathe.
The impact of e-waste on water:
Remember those contaminants we mentioned before? Some of those are heavy metals – Lead, barium, mercury and also lithium (found in mobile phone and computer batteries). When these heavy metals are improperly handled or disposed of via landfill, they can leak into the soil and eventually the groundwater. Picture the groundwater as the first domino waiting to fall. The heavy metals then make their way from the groundwater into streams then 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:
Though soil is the pathway on which heavy metals find water, it does not go unaffected by these harmful contaminants. E-waste has a very 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 via e-waste the crops, and the food they provide, are also contaminated. This causes many of the illnesses mentioned above and restricts viable farmland for clean food production.
15 E-Waste/E-Cycling facts to think about
1. A large number 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 materials recovery.
2. Every year, over 50 million tons of electronic waste is created.
3. Each year, globally, around 1 billion cell phones and 300 million computers are put into production.
4. In the U.S. alone, over 140 million cell phones are thrown into landfills every year. If all the cell phones were recycled, it would save enough energy to power 25,000 households for one year.
5. The United States is No. 1 worldwide in terms of e-waste produced annually. Americans throw around 9.4 million tons of electronics every year.
6. Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in a year.
7. 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.
8. Only 12.5% of e-waste is recycled.
9. Annually, Americans throw out phones containing over $60 million in gold and/or silver.
10. 1 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.
11. According to the United Nations, 20-50 million metric tons of electronic waste is discarded globally every year.
12. Guiyu, China is where the United States transports a major amount of its e-waste. After the electronic waste is transported over to China, the electronics are dumped in the town where it litters the streets and poisons the residents. Hydrochloric acid is thrown on the items to reveal the steel and copper to be reused. High levels of lead have been reported among residents.
13. E-waste represents 2% of America’s trash in landfills, but it equals 70% of overall toxic waste.
14. 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.
15, The amount of global e-waste is expected to grow by 8 percent per year. Roughly 80 percent of electronic waste generated in the U.S. is exported to Asia, a trade flow that is a source of considerable controversy.
Current solutions for e-waste
Since e-waste is so detrimental to the environment what do we do with it?
From E-Cycling itself to the E-Cycling Leadership Initiative, steps are being taken to work on this ever-growing form of waste.
Electronic Recycling (E-Cycling):E-cycling is reusing, or the distribution for reuse, of pieces of electronic equipment and their components at the end of their life cycle. General recycling is a practice that is of great global importance for a huge number of reasons but the importance of Electronic Recycling (E-Cycling) may have them all beat.
Why is E-Cycling important?
E-Cycling saves other resources:
Producing the brand new electronics that would eventually become e-waste requires a large number of resources in the way of metals, plastics, and glass. The process to create those three resources requires a hefty volume of fossil fuels, chemicals, and water.
Take the creation of a desktop computer for example. The amount of fossil fuels, chemicals, and water needed to create that single desktop is a little staggering:
– 530 pounds of fossil fuels
– 48 pounds of chemicals
– 1.5 tons of water
E-Cycling utilizes a plentiful resource for raw materials:
Remember the smartphones? They are not quite as resource-draining as the desktop computer but they are close. The best 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. These metals can be recovered. The energy used for that process of recovery is nothing compared to the energy needed to mine those metals from scratch.
Crazy / Scary Facts:
– Only 10%-15% of the gold in e-waste is successfully recovered internationally
– According to the United Nations, electronic waste is 40 to 50 richer with deposits of precious metals than the mines on earth
– In addition to precious metals, smartphones are also a great resource for recyclable metals, plastics, and glass
The E-Cycling Leadership Initiative:
Consumer electronics industry leaders created the E-Cycling Leadership Initiative as a way to commit to the e-cycling movement.
This is what the E-Cycling Leadership is doing according to WasteAdvantage Magazine:
– Creating compact, efficient products that require less material to produce
– They use arsenic-free glass and recyclable high-grade aluminum
– All e-waste is processed in the region it was collected (nothing is shipped overseas for recycling or disposal)
– Recycling programs have been instituted in cities and on college campuses in 95 percent of the countries where Apple products are sold. This alone has diverted more than 130.2 million pounds of equipment from landfills since 1994
– Apple operates a number of free Takeback and recycling programs
– Collects and recycles products in store at all 1100+ locations no matter where the item was purchased
– Non-Best Buy branded TVs (less than 32-inches) and monitors are accepted for a $10 fee that is offset by a $10 Best Buy gift card
– Best Buy offers a TV haul-away service when a new product is delivered
– They offer a Tech Trade-In program that compensates consumers with gift cards for valuable products
*NOTE: In early 2011, Best Buy stores nationwide collected nearly 400 pounds of recyclable electronics every minute.
– Dell Reconnect is a formed a partnership with Goodwill Industries International that lets consumers drop off used computers for free recycling
– Since 2004, Reconnect has diverted more than 96 million pounds of electronic waste from landfills while creating roughly 250 “green jobs”
– Some donations are resold
– Devices needing repair are either refurbished or broken down into parts to be recycled by Dell partners
– Dell Reconnect does more than recycle. Reconnect supports Goodwill’s job training programs, employment placement services, and various community-based programs for people who have disabilities, lack education or job experience, or face other challenges to finding employment
– HP has been recycling computer electronics since 1987
– They currently operate recycling services in 56 countries and territories worldwide
– They launched a U.S. buyback program in 2009
– In 2009 they recycled more than 200 million pounds of hardware globally
– LG allows consumers to drop off unwanted electronics at designated E-Cycling Centers
– LG has recycled more than 7 million pounds since 2009
– Because Nintendo gaming systems and games retain their value past their lifecycle, Nintendo of America offers a variety of customer support options to maximize their continued use
– They offer a free Takeback program that provides recycling of their hardware, software, accessories, and rechargeable batteries
Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba (Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company, LLC or MRM):
– As of 2008 these three leading electronics brands were the first to create a Product Stewardship Organization to manage collection and recycling programs in the United States
– The goal of the MRM is the creation of a national recycling infrastructure that provides convenient recycling opportunities to consumers for used electronic products
– The MRM provides compliance services to manufacturers in states with recycling requirements
– The MRM operates a nationwide collection and recycling service for brands produced by Panasonic, Sharp, Toshiba, Mitsubishi and Vizio
– MRM has established 840 collection sites across the U.S. and has recycled more than 78 million pounds of electronics since October of 2007
– Samsung Recycling Direct provides drop-off locations in all 50 states
– Samsung Recycling Direct was founded on the principles of the protection of people, the environment and developing countries through responsible management of materials
– Samsung holds its recyclers accountable for environmentally responsible recycling in the way of no landfill, incineration, or export of hazardous electronic waste to developing countries
– Sony’s Takeback recycling program was the first to pair a major electronics manufacturer with a national waste management company
– Sony has established a goal of collecting a pound of electronics for every pound it produces since 2007
– As of 2014, Sony has collected and recycled more than 43 million pounds of electronics
Find more Takeback program information regarding the above-mentioned companies and others here.