We sure do love our electronic gadgets! They are a huge part of our lives and many of us use them throughout the day, everyday. However, as technology has continued to evolve and our electronics wear out, all of those used and defunct electronic devices are adding up, and fast.
In fact, electronic waste (otherwise known as e-waste) is now the fastest growing waste stream globally, causing huge problems for both the environment and for human health.
Why is e-waste recycling important?
Most electronic devices contain many different toxic materials that can leach into the soil or into groundwater, and the toxins can also be released into the atmosphere when this trash is burned.
While placing these items in landfills is now illegal in many countries, in some other countries, this practice still continues today. In Hong Kong, for example, it has been estimated that 10 to 20 percent of computers end up in a landfill .
When electronic waste is burned, it releases toxins like lead, cadmium and mercury into the air and water. These toxins can bioaccumulate within the food chain, which does not just negatively impact wildlife but our health as well.
Many electronics also contain PVC plastics and brominated flame retardants, and when they are burned, they release toxic dioxins and furans .
While many people in the developed world are now bringing their used electronics to recyclers, as much as 50 to 80 percent of our old electronics are being exported to the developing world (often illegally) to be “recycled,” but generally without the safety and the environmental protections that exist in the developed world, including those regarding child labor .
Workers in developing countries such as China, India, and Pakistan labor by taking these devices apart by hand and then often burn them to access the valuable metals and other components within these devices [2,3].
Because of these all too common practices, communities in developing countries are having their land and water supplies poisoned and the toxins in these products are making people very ill.
Due to the heavy burden that electronic waste (e-waste) can cause to human health and to the environment from toxic components such as heavy metals, responsible recycling of these products is a necessity in an increasingly technology-driven world.
With a growing public awareness of these negative impacts of the improper disposal of electronic devices, many people are now recycling them.
While you should also know that many companies continue to send these defunct gadgets overseas, leading to a number of undesirable impacts, more and more companies are recycling electronic products using responsible and sustainable processes.
So, have you ever wondered what happens to your old televisions or computers once you turn them in to be recycled?
Here is the answer to your question.
The step by step electronic waste recycling process
Because electronic waste contains a variety of materials, including plastics, glass, and metals, recycling e-waste requires several steps to recover these resources in the most efficient manner.
In general, both manual labor and automation are involved during the electronic waste recycling process. The use of automated equipment during the recycling process helps to efficiently recover reusable materials, eliminates hazardous waste, and protects workers and the environment .
Step 1: Manual sorting and separation
Electronic items are manually sorted, and components that should not be shredded or crushed are removed by hand, such as batteries, UPS battery systems, toner cartridges, and fluorescent lights .
Step 2: Shredding
An Initial Size Reduction step shreds the electronic items into small 100mm size pieces, and a Secondary Size Reduction step further breaks down materials into even smaller fragments that are well suited for the separation process.
Any dust extracted during this process is disposed of using environmentally-friendly methods.
Step 3: Magnetic removal
Steel and iron fragments are removed by magnets.
Step 4: Metallic and nonmetallic separation
Other metals, such as aluminum, copper, and brass are separated from non-metallic materials, such as glass and plastic.
Separation occurs through Eddy currents, optical identification, and magnets.
Step 5: Separation by water
Plastic and glass are separated by using water . Lead-containing glass may be sent to lead smelters to be used to make new products such as batteries, new CRTs, and x-ray shields.
Plastics are separated by color and sold to plastic recyclers.
Once the raw materials have been separated, they can be sold as commodities to recyclers and manufacturers to make new electronic devices or other items.
Circuit boards are ground up and smelted, the gases are captured, and the metals can be sold as raw commodities. Wood from older television model cabinets may be chipped and used to be burned as biofuel.
The Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) recycling process
Because the Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) that are present in computer monitors and old televisions contain large amounts of toxins such as lead that can be harmful to human health and to the environment, recycling these devices requires a separate process from most other electronics.
Step 1: Monitor body and cathode ray separation
The front of the monitor or television body must be removed in order to access the CRT within, and the outer shell of the monitor or television must be recycled with other e-waste.
Step 2: Size reduction
The CRT tubes and screens are shredded into tiny pieces, and the glass dust is removed using environmentally-friendly methods.
Step 3: Metal removal
Using magnets, iron and steel are removed from the broken pieces, and then aluminum and copper is removed by passing the rest of the material through Eddy currents.
Step 4: Washing
Any remaining glass fragments are cleaned to remove oxides, phosphors, and dust extracts, leaving clean glass to be sorted one last time.
Step 5: Glass sorting
The leaded glass is separated from unleaded glass. Both types of glass can be used to manufacture new screens. Lead-containing glass may also be sent to lead smelters to be used to make new products such as batteries, new CRTs, and x-ray shields.
The best e-waste recycling systems consist of self-contained recycling processes after the initial manual separation step, as well as self-contained collection of raw materials to be shipped to manufacturers. This ensures the highest level of protection for both human health and the environment.
How and where to recycle old e-waste properly?
How can we be a part of the solution of responsible e-waste recycling instead of being part of the problem? There are actually a number of places where you can responsibly recycle your old computer, tablet, or other electronic devices.
#1 Don’t trash it!
As mentioned above, our electronic devices contain some very toxic chemicals that can end up poisoning our land, water, wildlife, and ultimately us!
#2 Donate it for reuse
If your device is still usable, you can donate it to an organization that needs it, such as the National Cristina Foundation or the World Computer Exchange . However, there are also many places who accept old computers and other electronic devices to fix them up. After the electronics are fixed, they give the devices to schools and other organizations that need them.
In any case, be sure to encourage whomever receives your used devices to responsibly recycle them when they are finished with them.
#3 Find local recyclers near you who are responsible
This can be a difficult task, since many of the companies that claim to recycle these devices are the same ones that are shipping electronics abroad to developing countries .
To help solve this problem, there are several certification schemes that guarantee responsible and sustainable recycling of electronics, including e-Stewards and Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) .
Both organizations have pages on their websites where you can search to find local certified electronics recyclers. SERI’s R2 certification scheme is particularly vigilant, requiring certified recyclers to make every effort possible to reuse parts of used electronics .
#4 Manufacturer buyback and takeback programs
Many electronics manufacturers now offer programs where you can sell back your used devices or they may offer to recycle your device for free. However, manufacturers don’t always disclose what happens to the electronics after they receive them, so it is important to do your research before turning them in .
For a list of manufacturer takeback programs in the U.S., here is a great site to get you started. For manufacturer take back programs outside the U.S., it is recommended to check with individual manufacturer’s websites for more information.
#5 Retail stores
Many retail stores that sell electronics will also accept them for recycling. Programs and accepted items vary.
In the U.S., Best Buy and Staples are two companies that have excellent electronics recycling programs .
#6 Local government events and drop-off facilities
Many local governments now offer events when you can drop off your used electronic devices for proper disposal, and many municipalities also accept e-waste at their hazardous waste collection facilities, or even through curbside pickup services, such as in the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the United States.
#7 Online retailers and buyback companies
Online companies such as Gazelle, BuyBackWorld, eBay, and Amazon offer options for getting cash, trade-ins, or gift cards for your used electronics .
Ultimately, the most sustainable solution to our e-waste problem would be to require all electronics manufacturers to take back their own products and to responsibly recycle them. This would force them to make products that are more easily recyclable and to use fewer toxic chemicals when they make them in the first place .
Tips: What to do with old electronics besides recycling them?
While recycling our defunct electronic devices is certainly better than just throwing them in the trash, it is possible to give these devices a much longer lifespan before they are recycled. This embraces the reuse philosophy that is part of the Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle lifestyle.
Without much tinkering, you can easily reuse your older electronic devices for other purposes.
- For instance, you can use an old Android or similar device as just an audio player or a gaming device, and any smart phone can be used as an alarm clock or Skype phone.
- An old cell phone with a camera function could also be used to take pictures [7,8].
- Your old cell phone can be repurposed into an emergency-only device. Even without a SIM card, as long as you have a viable battery, you can use a cell phone to call an emergency phone number such as 911 .
- And, why not reuse your old phone when you are traveling or in another situation in which you don’t want to worry about damaging your new one? You can easily swap out your SIM card between your phones and choose which one best suits your situation .
- An outdated tablet device or laptop could be used as a digital photo frame, and an old computer’s hard drive could be used as an external portable hard drive or an extra backup option for a new computer.
- If hook up new speakers to your old iPod or MP3 player and you will have created an inexpensive home stereo system for yourself. These players can also be used as multimedia storage device to download movies, pictures, music videos or slideshows, and all that you should need is an audio/video cable to hook them up to your television .
- Unless it is very broken down or substantially out-of-date, you should be able to stream online movies and music from YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix using an older computer. However, you may need to add a few upgrades to it such as a faster video card and some additional RAM for proficient downloading capability .
- Using the “enable disk use” box in iTunes will allow you to use an old iPod as an extra portable hard drive, and many other media players will support USB mass storage where you can drag and drop files and save them just like with any other external drive .
Other reuses of electronic devices may require more involvement and knowledge. Some reuse ideas include converting:
- An old coffee pot into a fish bowl;
- An old blender into a tabletop lamp;
- An old VCR into an automatic pet feeder;
- An old laptop as a second hand screen for tasks such as conducting research and doing graphic design;
- An old computer as a dedicated audio music player [9,10,11].
And, for the most tech-savvy individuals among us:
Old webcams can be used as a basic security system
While this option does not offer nearly the level of protection as a full security system would, you can use an old webcam with certain computer programs to detect when the motor detection feature of the camera is tripped. The programs can send you email alerts, or some programs even offer the option to check your home from a remote location while you are away .
Other tech-savvy upcycling options include turning an old PDA (such as a Palm Pilot) into a musical instrument, using a cell phone as a remote starter for your car, and even turning your old cell phone into a robot [8,10]!
Make them into art
If you are creative, almost anything can be turned into art, including old electronics.
Give them to others
Offer your old devices to family members or friends, or post an advertisement on Craigslist or Freecycle.org.
Sites like these, as well as eBay also provide opportunities for people who love to fix and refurbish electronics .
Ebay and many other sites such as BuyBack World will purchase and then resell used electronics as refurbished models.
As you can see, there are many ways to reuse your devices before they need to be recycled. Be sure to consider many of these options and others when you are thinking about getting rid of your electronics.