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 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 health¹.
The problems with our electronics
Most electronic devices contain many different toxic materials that can leach into the land 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 many other countries, this practice still continues today. In Hong Kong, for example, it has been estimated that 10-20 percent of computers end up in a landfill².
When electronic waste is burned, it releases toxins like lead, cadmium and mercury into the air and water. These toxins can bio-accumulate within the food chain, and does not just negatively impact wildlife, but humans as well. Many electronics also contain PVC plastics and brominated flame retardants, and when they are burned, they can release toxic dioxins and furans².
While many people in the developed world are now bringing their used electronics to recyclers, as much as 50-80% of our old electronics are being exported to the developed 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 labor². 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 devices²,³.
Because of these all too common practices, communities in these developing countries are having their land and water supplies poisoned and the toxins in these products are making people very ill. The toxins from e-waste is now threatening the health of an estimated 100 million people worldwide¹.
Solutions to our e-waste problem
So 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 that you can responsibly recycle your old computer, tablet, or other electronic devices.
- 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! They don’t belong in the trash⁴!
- 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 Exchange¹. However, be sure to encourage whomever receives your used devices to responsibly recycle them when they are finished with them.
- 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 countries⁴.
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)¹. Both organizations have pages on their websites where you can search to find local certified electronics recyclers. SERI’s R2 certification is particularly vigilant, requiring certified recyclers to make every effort possible to reuse parts of used electronics¹.
- 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 in⁴.
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.
- 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 programs⁴.
- 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 now 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.
- 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 electronics¹.
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 place⁵.
You might also want to think twice about upgrading to a new electronic item if the device that you already own still works well. Do you really need the newest version of this or that anyway?