What It Is
Recycling electronics is a way to reduce the negative societal, human health, and environmental impacts resulting from the improper disposal of electronic waste, or “e-waste.”
Recycling e-waste will:
(1) reduce the potential for electronic products’ hazardous materials to harm humans and ecosystems
(2) extend the life of valuable materials contained in those products
(3) benefit you in the form of living up to your sustainability goals, possibly earning extra cash, and in some cases, avoiding potential lawsuits while simultaneously strengthening public image.
Why It Matters
The increase in demand for electronic products mirrors how businesses and organizations continue to benefit from greater efficiencies from electronics and game-changing technologies. This unquestionably is beneficial to the economy, our society, and simply to our everyday lives. However, with our dependency on electronics comes the responsibility to recycle them properly after consumers have finished using them. The unfortunate truth is that only 13-18 percent of e-waste in the United States is disposed and recycled properly (see Table 1 below). Despite a growing total amount of recycled e-waste, the overall percentage recycled has not significantly increased since 1999.
Table 1: E-waste Management in the United States
*Source: Environmental Protection Agency
Not only can recycling e-waste help resolve negative issues to human health and the environment, it can even generate revenue. Some companies exist that will buy your e-waste, that offer e-waste mail-in service, that will pay for you to return certain electronic products, and that pick up your electronic waste for a nominal fee.
Think of all the businesses, organizations, and households, and the amount of computers, laptops, cell phones, iPads, TVs, and other electronics that are discarded by them every. Now imagine more than 80 percent of that toxic waste is being dumped in areas where people survive off their local environments. This is the unfortunate truth where thousands of tons of poisonous materials pollute the air, water, and soil every day. According to the UN Environment Programmme, the global total for e-waste could be around 50 million tons per year.
Below is a short list that highlights the main negative effects of dumping toxic e-waste:
- When improperly discarded, e-waste’s inherent dangerous chemicals have a high risk of becoming air and water pollution and soil contaminants. Such chemicals include lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants.
- Human health for those nearby is negatively affected when e-waste is discarded to landfills. Health risks include kidney disease, brain damage, genetic mutation, and severe lead poisoning.
- While e-waste contains hazardous material, it also contains scarce, valuable metals. Without better resource management, e-waste will continue to produce more hazardous waste and deplete the earth’s valuable limited resources.
There are three options you can choose from when managing your e-waste.
- 1. Reduce
- 2. Reuse
- 3. Recycle
The first and most impactful step is to reduce the consumption of e-waste in a way that does not compromise your business or organization’s efficiency and productivity. One example of reduction is with “Cloud Computing,” which is a concept of sharing resources over a network. That means that instead of every business having a great deal of electronic equipment, it can store computer memory, processing power, and software via one network. Confidentiality, privacy, reliability, and speed are not compromised—in some cases aspects are improved.
Reuse comes in the form of giving extra life to useable electronic equipment. For instance, if newer versions of the same product are not necessarily cost effective, try extending the life of your current products. If a business purchases a newer version of a product that provides pretty much the same services, the old product is no longer used and often becomes additional e-waste, even when it is still perfectly useable. Another option to consider is donating your unwanted, functioning electronics so that other individuals or organizations that can make good use of them and prevent them from becoming waste altogether. For example, organizations like Cell Phones for Soldiers and Verizon’s Hopeline program ensure that your old cell phones are used for a worthy cause. Salvation Army and Goodwill use the profits from selling your electronics to educate and empower people in need of help.
The most important thing to remember when recycling your e-waste is to be sure the recycler you use is certified and is in fact recycling your e-waste properly and safely. Here are three suggestions for recycling your e-waste properly:
- Certified E-Waste Recyclers: The Basel Action Network (BAN) is a non-profit organization devoted to certifying recyclers committed to safely and responsibly recycling electronics (known as e-stewards). To find a certified e-waste recycler, click here. There are options worth considering that may not be certified (yet) by BAN as well. For example, try looking into Global Electric Electronic Processing (GEEP)—for locations click here. Triangle Ecycling, which is a Green Plus Certified organization and also located in Durham, also has some great resources and advice for recycling e-waste.
- Civic Institutions: Check for events hosted by local government, schools, universities, and non-profit organizations for citizens that want to drop-off unwanted electronics at a specified location. Try looking through community calendars and local papers for these events.
- Retailers: Some retailers have effective e-waste recycling programs in their stores. Best Buy, for example, collects and recycles e-waste, and guarantees that it will not end up in a landfill.
There also are cash incentives with certain recycling programs as well. For example, companies like BuyMyTronics, Gazelle, and YouRenew all purchase your electronics (which they fix up for resale or scrap for valuable parts). Larger retailers, such as Staples, also offers to pay for returned printers and/or toner cartridges.
If your business or organization is on the supply side of electronic products, then you have much more power to positively change the dilemma with increasing amounts of e-waste. The design of products is most important. For instance, instead of designing products for planned obsolescence and products that contain hazardous materials, consider innovative ways to incorporate safer materials, a product take-back program, less materials, or longer-lasting products. Understandably, this may be difficult for many industries, but even little changes can give you the momentum for cost-effective change.
In 2011, the retailer Target began an electronics buyback program by partnering with websites such as NextWorth, Gazelle, and CExchange. This not only makes it easier for consumers to recycle e-waste, it incentivizes them by providing customers with Target store credit. Target made this change after a lawsuit was filed against the Corporation that it was improperly disposing of hazardous wastes, including electronics, and potential improvements in their public image.
However, just because an organization or business states that they recycle e-waste responsibly, does not necessarily mean that it is true. Certain organizations, most notably Basel Action Network, monitor how e-waste recyclers operate to ensure that they are doing so in an ethical and legal manner.
Tremont Electric, which produces the personal energy generator known as the nPower PEG, has begun manufacturing its second generation of Pegs. It has created a program that will allow its customers to send in older generation nPower PEGS so that Tremont’s engineers can repurpose parts for new PEGS.
Resources for More Information
- The Story of Electronics
- E-waste recycling: Giving new life to an old PC
- Responsible e-waste recycling: Basel Action Network E-waste film
- What is Cloud Computing?
- eCycling from Environmental Protection Agency
- eWaste Center, Inc. (EWC)
- Get Money for Recycling from Earth911
- “Recycling of electronic items a ‘success story’” from USAToday
- Facts, Statistics & Solutions from Money Crashers
Improperly disposed e-waste is very destructive to human health and the environment. Currently, most of the e-waste in the U.S. ends up in landfills (often in developing countries), polluting air and water and negatively effecting human health. The U.S. generates more e-waste than any other nation, so diligence and behavioral change is vitally important.
Glossary of Related Terms
E-waste: Short for electronic waste, e-scrap, or waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). A term for discarded electrical or electronic products.
 Wendy Koch, “Recycling of electronic items a ‘success story,'” USA Today, 10 May 2010, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/environment/2010-05-10-recycling_N.htm, accessed 5 August 2013.
 “EWaste Facts,” EWaste Center, http://www.ewastecenter.com/facts/ewaste-facts/, accessed 5 August 2013.
 Heather Levin, “Electronic Waste (E-Waste) Recycling and Disposal– Facts, Statistics & Solutions,” Money Crashers, http://www.moneycrashers.com/electronic-e-waste-recycling-disposal-facts/, accessed 5 August 2013.
 “Electronic Waste– reduce, reuse, recycle,” The Wastewatcher, 7 February 2011, http://keystonewaste.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/electronic-waste-reduce-reuse-recycle/, accessed 5 August 2013.
 “Homepage,” Cell Phones for Soldiers, http://www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com/, accessed 5 August 2013; “About Hopeline,” Verizon Wireless, http://aboutus.verizonwireless.com/commitment/community_programs/hopeline/, accessed 5 August 2013.
 “Target Settles E-Waste Lawsuit,” All Green, 11 March 2011, http://www.allgreenrecycling.com/news/target-settles-e-waste-lawsuit/, accessed 5 August 2013.
 Kendra Mayfield, “E-Waste: Dark Side of Digital Age,” WIRED, 1 October 2003, http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2003/01/57151?currentPage=all, accessed 5 August 2013.