Electronics are everywhere nowadays. Since new technology is emerging faster than consumers can keep up, it’s no wonder that the improper disposal of electronics is a huge problem. While many electronics manufacturers have e-recycling policies in place, the process often involves sending unwanted electronics back to the manufacturer or participating in one-time e-recycling events. Still, other companies have no e-recycling policy in place, or they may only operate these programs where required by law. For most consumers, the tediousness and cost of mailing back electronics is a deterrent, and these devices often end up mixed with regular household trash. However, as electronics recycling grows, new e-recycling programs are being put in place.
e-Scrap and e-Recycling
A 2014 study conducted by the United Nations estimated that while about 41 million tons of electronic waste was discarded, only 10 to 40 percent was disposed of properly. The improper disposal of electronics poses significant risks to both the environment and citizens.
While many municipalities have e-scrap programs, and the Covered Device Recycling Act of 2010 specifies the need for the proper disposal of electronics, cities continue to struggle with gaining compliance from residents. Consumers dispose of millions of cell phones, laptops, and televisions every year. Unfortunately, these items often end up in landfills where they don’t belong and can do serious damage.
Environmental Implications of Improper Disposal of Electronic Waste
In addition to the environmental implications posed by faulty e-scrap practices, studies have shown that the improper disposal of electronic waste is hazardous to human health. For example, residents in the city of Guiyu in China have experienced numerous health problems thought to be linked to the irresponsible disposal of electronics. The disposal methods often include burning, which releases small hazardous particles into the environment that affect the air quality, and which can be ingested by humans. In Guiyu, many residents also experience respiratory issues and neurological problems. They are also frequently exposed to lead.
Poor air quality is not only caused by burning discarded electronics. Even items that are just thrown into the trash pose a threat to the environment. Since many electronics are manufactured with potentially harmful chemicals, improper disposal leads the chemicals to be leached into the soil, which ultimately pollutes the groundwater. Once the groundwater is polluted, it can be a difficult and expensive process to initiate a cleanup.
Yet another problem related to the improper disposal of electronic products is dwindling natural resources. Many high-tech electronics rely on the mining of raw materials, including precious and semi-precious metals such as copper, lead, silicon, and aluminum. Each time someone improperly disposes of an electronics device, another opportunity is missed to reuse these valuable materials. Processing the raw materials takes an inordinate amount of resources, which harms the environment. When more new devices are manufactured, the mining process continues, which can have a negative impact on already scarce natural resources.
Possible e-Scrap Solutions
While people may be aware that electronics should not simply be tossed into the trash, putting this knowledge into practice is another matter entirely. While manufacturers offer recycling programs, consumers have been slow to embrace them and often find them impractical.
In July 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state’s Environmental Protection Fund would be making $3 million in grants available in an effort to help municipalities to recycle electronics more efficiently. The governor recognized the need for greater support in enforcing the electronics recycling laws that are already on the books. Prior to this announcement, many municipalities lacked the resources to adequately recycle electronics or enforce policies when citizens fail to comply.
What is the Future of e-Recycling?
While increased compliance with e-scrap laws is one solution to the e-waste problem, another is the use of more sustainable materials to produce the latest gadgets. Companies such as Apple have made a concerted effort to manufacture their products as sustainably as possible, while actively working to recycle as many components as possible. Although many devices rely on non-recyclable materials such as lead and cadmium, proper disposal is crucial to mitigating damage to the environment. In many cases, electronics that are disposed of properly, including glass, metals and other recyclable materials, can be reused to make new devices.
Recycling electronics is not an easy task, and a number of manufacturers have developed dedicated e-scrap programs and policies, which can be easily accessed via a comprehensive list on the EPA website. Consumers may want to consider taking advantage of electronic buyback and trade-in programs, while companies may want to voluntarily participate in the EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Electronics Challenge. The SSM Electronics Challenge aims to encourage electronics manufacturers and retailers to send 100 percent of their used electronics to refurbishers and recyclers. The challenge allows manufacturers to play an active role in ensuring that electronics are disposed of properly.