Our global society struggles a lot with waste issues. Too much is generated, too much is disposed of irresponsibly, and not enough is reused and recycled, but e-waste generates a whole new problem due to its high levels of toxicity. Electronics typically consist of easily recyclable materials like plastic and glass, as well as small amounts of toxic materials such as lead, cobalt, silicon, mercury, and arsenic.
When recycled properly, the easily recyclable materials are separated and repurposed, while the toxic materials are either recycled through specialized processes or safely disposed of. When e-waste is thrown in the trash, or otherwise disposed of improperly, these toxic materials can contaminate recyclable materials, and even leach into soil and groundwater.
TVs and computer monitors have Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) which contain 4 lbs. of lead on average. They are banned from landfills and incinerators to prevent the release of hazardous chemicals. These heavy metals can cause cancer and problems with the nervous system, reproductive system, and development if they are not recycled or disposed of properly.
Another big safety concern is lithium ion batteries. Many electronics contain lithium ion batteries as their power source, and more of these batteries will be made in the coming years as they store clean solar and wind power for use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. However, materials in these batteries are dangerously flammable and have sparked fires in trash and recycling centers across the world so it is important to manage them correctly, especially in our most used electronics like cell phones.
This e-waste problem has been getting worse of late due to mass adoption of new gadgets, like smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Back in 2010, under 300 million smartphones were sold worldwide, but that number has increased fivefold to approximately 1.524 billion in 2019.
In fact, over 1 billion smartphones have been sold worldwide every year since 2013, with total aggregate smartphone sales since 2007 adding up to around 14.7 billion. That’s a lot of phones, enough for every single one of the world’s 3.5 billion smartphone users to have four different cell phones, or more realistically, for every smartphone user to have thrown their old one away in favor of a new one an average of three times.
Computers, tablets, keyboards, video game consoles, TV’s, and other kinds of electronics have followed a similar trend with global e-waste almost doubling from 33.8 million metric tons in 2010 to over 53 million metric tons in 2019.
It may seem impossible to stop the stream of new sophisticated gadgets, but there are many changes that can be made in the design and marketing of electronics to reduce consumption and waste.
One big change that large tech companies can make to help curb e-waste is to stop the practice of “planned obsolescence”. Planned obsolescence is a design strategy that encourages more consumer purchasing by making lower quality products that break or stop functioning properly after only a few years of use.
For example, if your iPhone worked well for 5 years, you wouldn’t need to buy a new one for a while, but if it started to slow down after a year and broke after two (which often happens), you would need to buy a new one more frequently.
The second scenario is more profitable for tech companies, so we are left with lower quality, less robust products that don’t last very long. They really don’t make them like they used to.
Right to Repair
Going hand in hand with planned obsolescence is tech companies’ growing resistance to letting consumers and third parties fix their products. This practice—that is hotly contested by the Right to Repair movement—involves practices like making phones with proprietary screws, or designing products to be unfixable.
This causes consumers to throw away and replace electronics more frequently, as it is often much more difficult and costly to fix products and give them a new life. There are many people and organizations that are passionate about our right to repair. Companies like iFixit offer manuals and specialized tools to help consumers fix their smartphones and other electronics. Right to repair laws have also been popping up on ballots across the country.
Be Mindful of Your Purchases
There are also many things we can do as individuals to cut down on our e-waste. The most effective strategy is to be mindful and purposeful with our purchases of electronics. Tech companies excel at running marketing campaigns to convince us that we need to have the latest gadget or the latest update in order to be trendy and mainstream. This mentality often leads to frequent upgrades that aren’t really needed. You can reduce emissions and e-waste by using your products for their entire lifetime before upgrading.
How to Dispose of Your E-waste Safely
How Electronics Get Recycled
End-of-life electronics are either manually de-manufactured, mechanically shredded, or a combination of both. Separated plastic and metal are sold for recycling. Glass is sent to a smelter where the lead is recovered in a smelting process. In some cases, e-waste recyclers will “harvest” reusable parts such as hard drives and motherboards for reuse or resale. Other recyclers test electronics and sell working equipment to wholesalers or consumers or donate to schools and non-profits.
How to Recycle E-waste
In addition to reducing your e-waste, it is very important to make sure to dispose of electronics properly when they stop working and are no longer fixable. Many big box electronics stores, like Best Buy and Staples, accept old and broken consumer electronics at their stores and arrange for them to be safely recycled.
There are also companies like call2recycle that have maps of certified e-waste drop off sites, and Gazelle which buys old cell phones, and websites like Recycle Smart MA that can direct you to local recycling resources. Some local town transfer stations also have electronics recycling programs.
Visit our website to learn even more ways that you can properly reduce waste and hazardous materials at home!