The depressing truth about e-waste: 10 things to know

Where do our cell phones and laptops go to die? Here are 10 things to know about the growing electronic waste problem and how to properly recycle these items.

A small Chinese child sitting among cables and e-waste, Guiyu, China.
 Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Wikimedia Commons

In 2012, the United Nations reported that in five years, the world's electronic waste would grow by 33% from 49.7 million tons to 65.4 million tons. That's the weight of 200 Empire State Buildings or 11 Great Pyramids of Giza.

Considering the lifespan of a cell phone is now only 18 months and a laptop's life span is only around two years, that rapid growth rate isn't surprising. What is surprising, however, is how little the public knows about e-waste and how to properly dispose of electronics. Here are 10 things to know about the e-waste life cycle.

1. What counts as e-waste

Electronic waste includes all discarded electric or electronic devices with battery power or circuitry or electric elements. This includes mobile phones, television sets, computers, printers, and entertainment devices such as stereo systems, as well as refrigerators, washing machines and dryers.

2. Where e-waste goes

Electronic waste is a globalized business, and about 70% to 80% of it is shipped to landfills in many developing nations, where it is sorted and sold for scrap metal or burned to extract materials, which is harmful to people and the surrounding environment. The US also sends e-waste to prisons, where it is processed in under-regulated environments.

In 2012, the US generated more than 9 million tons of e-waste, which was a huge jump from its 2 million tons in 2005. StEP

In 2012, the US generated more than 9 million tons of e-waste, which was a huge jump from its 2 million tons in 2005. According to the EPA, 141 million mobile devices were ready for end-of-life management in 2008, but they made up less than 1% of discarded electronics. Of the electronic waste the US generated, only 25% was recycled. The other 75% was sent to landfills in the US or abroad.

3. Why it matters to properly dispose

Electronic waste can have many toxic elements inside. According to the United Nations' Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative, which is a collaborative global effort to raise awareness and promote innovation in disposing and recycling e-waste, up to 60 elements from the periodic table can be found inside e-waste items, as well as flame retardants and other toxic chemicals. For example, cadmium is one found in personal computer batteries and monitors. It is extremely toxic to humans and the environment. Other harmful elements include:

  • Lead, which is in most electronic equipment
  • Beryllium, a lightweight metal in many electronics
  • Mercury, in many lighting displays
  • Polyvinyl chloride, often used for cabling in circuit boards

4. What it can be turned into

The metal from these devices can be used for many things, if extracted properly. Cell phone batteries and metals inside the phone can be used to make new ones, or for jewelry, art, metal plates, or other electronics. A company in India, Attero, extracts metals like gold, platinum, and selenium safely from used devices, refurbishes others, and helps businesses with end-to-end electronic asset management. It's a small dent in the grand scheme, but companies like this are important — and profitable.

5. Where to dispose e-waste

There are several good resources to find out about local or regional e-waste recycling programs. The EPA and the Electronics Take Back Coalition offer information about e-Stewards, which are responsible recyclers. If there is no e-Steward near you, look at the manufacturer or store recycling programs. For instance, Staples and Best Buy both have recycling programs.

6. How to vet a collector

Burning waste in Ghana, where there are no regulations or precautions regarding the toxic materials.
 Image: Marlenenapoli/WIkimedia Commons

There are a great deal of fake electronic recycling programs, which is why it's important to look at websites like the ones in No. 5 before recycling. This e-waste cycle is a lucrative business because these organizations can make a lot of money by exporting the items to developing countries that use the scrap metal rather than recycling them for reuse, but they do not monitor or pay for any safety precautions for the people that root through the waste and disassemble it.

7. The laws regarding e-waste vary widely

Why is information about electronic waste so hard to come by? First of all, there have been many attempts to develop federal laws to deal with e-waste, but a consensus has never come to fruition. The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2013, which would make it illegal for the US to send toxic e-waste to other nations was never passed. The Senate introduced the same one in March 2014, but it still hasn't passed.

If we recycled a million laptops, it would save the energy equivalent of the electricity used by 3,657 US homes in a year. EPA

The Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER) includes more than 100 companies operating over 218 facilities in 34 states, including Waste Management, Sims Recycling Solutions, which is the largest recycling company in the world, and many big-name tech companies like Dell and Microsoft. The organization is trying to promote the passage of this bill. Most states have their own e-waste disposal laws, but only 25 states have passed e-waste recycling laws.

8. Companies are trying to promote trade-ins

In May, Apple unveiled a new trade-in program for iPhones, offering a higher value on iPhone 4 and 4S, and putting that credit towards a new version. Apple has recently made a bigger deal of its clean energy efforts in data centers, and is promoting its recycling programs as well. Dell is also doing its part — Dell Reconnect is a program at many existing Goodwill locations across the US that promotes responsible recycling of old computers, and the company also helps businesses recycle equipment. Google partnered with Sims Recycling Solutions for a program to promote recycling old devices.

9. The e-waste capital of the world is Guiyu, China

Though China is second behind the US in amount of e-waste generated, it is also the place where most e-waste is dumped by the US. Guiyu, which is a town in Guangdong Province in China's main manufacturing zone, has been a main hub for electronic waste for years. The roads are covered in plastic, wires, and other e-waste. A study showed pollution comes from the burning of circuit boards, and throwing hydrochloric acid on items to recover steel and copper. It's dangerous for workers, residents, visitors, and the surrounding areas. Other studies showed people in Guiyu had higher levels of lead in their blood.

10. Even in the digital age, information is scarce

Because there are no federal laws — and state laws obviously aren't a top priority — it's difficult to understand exactly how the world deals with e-waste, even as the numbers of disposed electronics grow and the life span of our devices get shorter. It's also hard to find out how much waste is out there, because of the amount that is said to be recycled by these small companies, but is actually sold to other countries. Even on the EPA website, it says "reliable data on exported e-waste is not available."

But there is this information from the EPA that drives home the importance of recycling e-waste. If we recycled a million laptops, it would save the energy equivalent of the electricity used by 3,657 US homes in a year, and one ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore.

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Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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