Electronic equipment has become an integral part of modern day life, and constant innovation forces people to keep up with new product trends while their current electronics quickly become obsolete. This phenomenon has caused large piles of unwanted electronic devices, also known as e-waste, in landfills around the globe. Americans alone own about 3 billion electronic products, allowing the electronics industry to generate nearly $2 billion per year. So what happens to all the outdated devices besides collecting dust in the garages and basements of America?
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, about 60% of unwanted electronics end up in the trash instead of being recycled. In 2014, people around the globe threw away 46 million tons of e-waste. That number is expected to more than double in 2016, reaching about 187 billion pounds. By next year, the global volume of e-waste is estimated to weigh the equivalent of 126 Empire State Buildings. The percentage of e-waste that populates landfills is expected to grow rapidly as new devices are being produced and sold.
Once electronic devices are in a landfill, they continue to harm the environment by leaking hazardous chemicals that pollute the surrounding land and water streams. Improperly dumping electronics is dangerous due to the toxic materials inside the devices such as cadmium and mercury. These elements can seep into soil and groundwater as well as contaminate the air. Certain methods of breaking down the electronics, such as burning, increases the air contamination and can also poison the workers handling the devices. E-waste not only contributes to water, soil, and air pollution but also increases the risks of information security breaches.
Rather than dumping electronics into a landfill, consumers can find many alternative end-of-life solutions for their electronics . Incineration/destruction, reuse/refurbishment, and recycling are all different avenues consumers can pursue with their electronics once they have deemed them obsolete. Although incineration keeps devices out of a landfill, it can have adverse environmental impacts if the process releases heavy metals and toxins. Alternatively, recycling is also a possible end-of-life solution for individual parts of the electronics that reuses the raw materials of an obsolete device to create a new product. However, recycling can also emit harmful toxins during the process of melting down or separating mixed material parts. Reusing the device after refurbishment is the best and most sustainable way to prolong the viable life of the product.
Part of the problem with recycling old electronic devices is the growing cost for recyclers. Recycling electronic waste requires the ability to collect, sort, dismantle, and extract recyclable materials and precious metals from a wide range of devices. The process is becoming less profitable because tech companies are using fewer minerals like gold and copper in their devices, which the recyclers rely on as a revenue stream. The value of materials, such as steel and oil-based plastics, has also decreased in recent years, creating difficulties when reselling these commodities. In response, some domestic companies ship electronic devices overseas to be dismantled.
The EPA recognizes this growing problem and has been working to provide better end-of-life and product recovery solutions. The increasing pressure of the issue has also caused state and local governments, manufacturers, and retailers to work towards providing opportunities for recycling and reuse. Most state laws require device manufacturers to pay for the recycling of a certain amount of e-waste each year, but this is generally not enough to solve the growing trash problem. There is no US federal law requiring e-waste to be recycled. Currently, only 25 states in the US have laws that establishing a system of collection and recycling of unwanted devices. While these states ban sending electronics to landfills, the other 25 states have absolutely no regulations regarding e-waste.
Many electronic retailers offer store coupons for utilizing their recycling program while government agencies offer tax credit incentives. From special take-back programs to community sponsored recycling events, people and companies are starting to realize the importance of keeping electronic devices out of landfills in order to protect the environment and ensure a sustainable future.
Akooba helps businesses properly manage their end-of-life assets through sound, environmentally-safe practices, industry trusted downstream partners, and technologies that make current practices more efficient and affordable. We make sure that obsolete or unwanted electronic devices are disposed of in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. Before recycling or refurbishing used electronics, all devices are wiped and destroyed in compliance with all company and industry standards and requirements. We proudly commit to a zero-landfill policy that ensures none of the devices we receive will end up in a landfill and contribute to the toxic waste stream.
Want to learn more about the topics addressed above? Check out these links for more information:
- This document published by the EPA outlines the proper management of electronic waste in the United States. [NSCEP]
- Greenpeace International provides information on where e-waste ends up, the global impacts of the electronic waste trail, and weighs alternative solutions of device disposal. [Greenpeace]
- This recent article by Rachelle Gordon reveals how e-waste affects the environment in multiple ways and how to safely and ethically dispose of electronics. [Electronic Recyclers]
- Electronics TakeBack Coalition aims to provide opportunities for take-back programs and inform consumers on how to recycle responsibly. [Electronics TakeBack]
- U.S. News dives deeper into how and why the business of electronic recycling is changing and becoming a growing problem [US News]
- This article explores the ugly details of e-waste and how consumerism drives the e-waste empire. [The Verge]