E-waste is becoming a big problem around the country and around the world. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from not having to worry about it much (because people only replaced their televisions rarely) to something we have to start seriously thinking about now. Let’s take a look at this problem confronting us, and maybe see if there’s anything we can do.
Putting the Problem of Electronics Waste into Perspective
There was a report generated by the United Nations not too long ago that delved into this issue. According to this report, there are approximately 49 million tons of e-waste on the planet today. It is projected that this mountain of waste electronic material will grow by 33 percent over the next few years, to more than 65 million tons. A little perspective on that number: It equals about 200 Empire State Buildings, or 11 Great Pyramids of Giza in scale. In 2012, the last year there are verifiable numbers for, the United States generated nine million tons, seven million more than in 2005.
What is Causing All of This?
We are. Our proclivities. Reading through the report, I find that I’m guiltier than many because it states that most people buy new cellphones (a major contributor to the problem) on the average of about every 18 months. I rarely go a year without buying a new phone. In my defense, that’s because in my job I see so many new ones that I can’t not buy a new one.
However, in my defense, I’ve owned my laptop for twice as long as the “average” person does. Most people, and I can attest to this, usually replace their laptops or computers about every two years. I typically upgrade mine until it is no longer cost-effective to do so I then purchase a new one and transfer all my data to it before wiping the old one completely.
What Constitutes E-Waste?
E-waste is basically anything that is electric or electronic and has been discarded. This includes cellphones, television sets, old computers and components such as keyboards, mice, printers, and displays, and old stereo systems and components. These days it also includes a long list of household appliances such as refrigerators, washers, dryers, and microwave ovens.
The U.S. EPA estimates that about 141 million cell phones were ready for “end of life management” in 2008, but cell phones only account for about one percent of discarded electronic equipment. We in the U.S. typically only recyclable about 25 percent of our electronic junk.
Where Does It Go When You Throw It Away?
Only about 20 to 30 percent of all e-waste makes it to a traditional landfill. This is because most of it is recyclable and it’s become big business on a global scale. What doesn’t make it to a landfill near you is sent to landfills in developing nations that have been set aside for the purpose. People are then paid to sort through it, except for the small percentage of US waste that is sent to prison complexes where inmates, in poorly regulated environments, sort through it. For free.
The recycling process can be an extremely hazardous one for our environment. This is because much of what is recyclable must be separated from the junk material, usually by burning or extreme heating. These processes release toxins into the air and ground where it can enter the water supply.
Why Dispose of Electronics Properly?
Although figuring out how and where to recycle isn’t always easy to decipher, the why is pretty easy to do so. I’m hoping you wouldn’t throw a hot dog or burger wrapper on the ground after you’ve eaten the food inside. So, why would you toss a potentially toxic piece of electronic junk in with the regular garbage? Why would you want to risk the various chemicals these things contain entering your food, water, or even the air you breathe?
Most batteries in electronic equipment contain lead. We all know what that can do. Lead is also used in the making of various electronic components. Another toxic chemical, cadmium, is also present in most cell phone batteries. Polyvinyl chloride, which becomes toxic when burned, is present in the sheathing on cabling and wiring in almost every electronic component made. Another extremely toxic chemical, mercury, is also present in almost everything with some sort of lit display.
E-Waste Can Be Used to Make Many Useful Things
When extracted and recycled properly, most of the metals from electronic devices can be used to make new useful items. This can include new cellphones, jewelry, metal plates, or even other new electronic devices. The recycling and reclamation of these metals is big business. Attero, an Indian company, specializes in it and extracts usable gold, selenium, platinum, and other rare metals from discarded devices. They also offer end to end electronic asset management services to companies globally. In fact, I actually have a friend in the San Francisco area that got into this business when it was just taking off and he’s now a millionaire.
How Can You Dispose of E-Waste Responsibly?
This is a good question. You could call your local waste disposal company, or you could call your city or town hall and see if they have any listings. Personally, I recycle my cellphones by sending them to a friend who works for the Veterans Administration. He then wipes them and has them reprogrammed and given to patients in the VA hospital he works at that don’t have visitors.
Many localities across the country are starting electronic disposal programs. Some of these are run in conjunction with the EPA and Electronics Take Back Coalition. This collaboration certifies recyclers and disposal centers as e-stewards. This certification lets consumers know who the responsible recyclers are. Follow the link above to find one near you. A little hint: Both Best Buy and Staples run electronics recycling programs.
Photo Credit: Baselactionnetwork