Electronics is becoming one of the fastest-growing solid waste streams in the world. As devices become more accessible and affordable, more and more of these items go into landfills. Technology aims to make lives easier. There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to live more efficiently, but the detrimental environmental effects of consuming electronics at a rapid rate can no longer be ignored.
What’s worse, electronic waste or e-waste has become more rampant in recent years. In a bid to find solutions for frequently replaced electronics, consumers are looking for measures to safely recycle their old gadgets.
Electronics waste, sometimes called e-waste or e-scrap, is the trash that comes from old electronic devices. There is no absolute definition for what is considered e-waste, but it generally refers to any item with a cord, battery, or plug that is discarded. The most common e-wastes are mobile phones, televisions, personal computers, laptops, tablets, DVDs, air conditioners, and microwave ovens.
Modernization is both a boon and a bane. It brings forth technological advances that make life easier and more convenient in the form of internet, smart homes, wearable devices, and entertainment gadgets.
The bad news is that as tech becomes more integrated into daily lives, device usage becomes shorter as people clamor for the latest versions or the newest additions. There are other reasons, too, for the existence of e-waste:
The big players in the tech industry are shaping how electronics are consumed. In a move called planned obsolescence, some gadgets are purposely designed to function slower or break over time to prompt users to buy new or more. More often they not, tech companies discontinue support for older models to make it more practical to buy the new version instead of maintaining or repairing their old ones.
In the age of constant innovation and upgrades, the lifespan of electronics is getting shorter. One contributing factor is the upgrade cycle, where consumers buy newer versions of products they use in a shorter span. Researchers at the Öko-Institut discovered why in their study.
Researchers were unable to draw conclusive proof that manufacturers are intentionally putting out products with shorter lifespans. However, they found an increase in proportion of consumers replacing defective appliances from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.4% in 2012. As for large household electronics that needed replacement in the first five years of use, they saw an increase from 7% in 2004 to 13% in 2013.
Another factor that contributes to the shortened lifespans of electronics is a preference and lifestyle choice. A chunk of the findings revealed that consumers replace their products for units with better features even though their older electronics were working fine.
Devices such as smartphones, watches, and tablets used to be defined as luxuries. The portability of these gadgets makes them easy to carry around and use. As technology becomes more integrative and useful in our daily lives, portability has become a necessity.
These gadgets also come out with enhanced components every year. They come with audio and video features with high-performing processors and large storage capacities.
According to Market Watch, the top three regions that hold the largest market share for portable electronics are North America, Asia Pacific, and Europe. Mobile phones take a huge chunk of the portable electronics market share, followed by other devices such as laptops and gaming consoles.
As the price continues to drop for gadgets, more and more people can afford them. Affordable price points drive higher demand for devices, even in low-income areas. A lower profit margin is a business strategy that increases sales even at lower prices, which fuels the cycle of unnecessarily buying gadgets.
Cheaper electronics also tend to be cheaply made. Customers find it easier to buy new or upgrade rather than repairing them because it is usually cheaper.
Since e-waste is a problem tied to the innovation of technology, it's hard to predict future trends. According to the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA, the devices that will be connected in 2020 are expected to be around 20 to 50 billion, and the amount of e-waste produced in 2021 will be more than 52 million tons.
Additionally, at this rate, the carbon emissions from the production and use of popular electronics will contribute to 14% of total emissions. By 2050, e-waste would be up to 120 million tonnes every year. To satisfy the growing demands, the consumption of raw materials will double by 2060 in all sectors, which will further deplete natural resources over time.
According to the 2014 data, there are more mobile phones than there are people in the whole world. In fact, popular gadgets such as tablets and smartphones are multiplying faster than humans.
However, the study pointed out that the figures don’t mean that every person in the world has a smartphone. In poorer nations, a select few don't have any at all. It means that there are people in first-world countries that are using more than one gadget.
In this age of upgrades, one of the most significant improvements that consumers are anticipating is 5G wireless technology. 5G is simply the fifth generation of wireless transmission technology. Its proprietors promise complete wireless digital connectivity for all fixed and unfixed devices, including portable electronics, smart appliances, HDTV, and more. The intention of 5G is to help lower the maintenance and energy consumption of technology while delivering fast gigabit speeds in seconds.
Major telecommunications companies in the US, including Verizon, T-Mobile, Qualcomm, and AT&T, have been rolling out 5G since 2019. The 5G transition plan is in effect globally, and once done, the infrastructure shift will be monumental and more sustainable than 4G.
With this upgrade, hundreds of millions of smartphones will be replaced by 5G-ready devices. More 5G phones are expected to be released in 2020. 4G will still exist alongside 5G to accommodate areas where 5G networks are still being planned and developed.
While the world is getting better at recognizing the importance of reusables such as straws and eco-bags, the case for electronic items hasn’t yet been given much attention.
The primary benefit of minimizing e-waste is the conservation of resources. It is crucial to stem the production of too much e-waste to reduce greenhouse gases and to help preserve what's left of Earth's supply of fossil fuels.
What's both surprising and alarming about e-waste is that most of the gadgets discarded in trash bins and recycling centers are in working condition. Most popular devices are a veritable mine of precious metals that include platinum, gold, silver, and cobalt. They also contain high amounts of tin and aluminum.
Throwing these machines away means discarding these valuable materials as well. In fact, a significant amount (7%) of the world's gold may be in e-waste. There is a great demand for these metals for the production of new devices. According to the January 2019 World Economic Forum circular, it is far more ecologically friendly and viable to mine the metals from discarded electronics than to extract more from the earth.
There are many reasons why broken devices can't be thrown away like any other waste. One of them is that there are usually hazardous components in them.
Electronic waste was a natural effect of the technological revolution in the 1970s. After discovering the damages it can cause to the environment, several rules and regulations were enacted to take care of e-waste. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed in 1976 to make the dumping of electronic scraps illegal in the United States.
In 1989, the Basel Convention was formed to protect international waters from hazardous wastes after public outcry when developing nations discovered toxic wastes being dumped on their shores from abroad. One of the biggest scandals involved a Liberian ship called the Khian Sea that was hired to dispose of 14,000 tons of incinerated e-waste from Philadelphia to New Jersey. Authorities in the latter state refused entry, which made the ship scatter the toxic garbage in the Caribbean and various areas when it went to Southeast Asia.
The binding laws of the Basel Convention still apply to today and are credited for the boom of the recycling industry. The regulatory system aims for all e-waste exports to be responsibly managed and disposed of by reaching agreements with other nations.
The problem when e-wastes end up in landfills is that they are composed of hazardous materials and toxic substances. Electronics contain dangerous elements such as cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), PVC, and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs). These pose threats to the environment and to humans who scavenge old electronics for valuable materials such as aluminum, iron, titanium, gold, silver, copper, and tin.
|Often found in resistors and Nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries
|Inhalation can generally cause severe respiratory ailments and kidney damage, which can result in renal failure. Ingestion can cause immediate poisoning. Low-level exposure can lead to fragile bones, anemia, brain, and nerve damage.
|Present in cathode ray tubes in older monitors and television sets, lead-acid batteries, some PVC.
|Lead dust inhalation causes irreversible damage to the brain, nervous system, and kidneys in children and adults. High lead level exposure may cause unconsciousness, seizures, and death.
|Found in fluorescent tubes, barometers, light switches.
|Inhalation of mercury vapor can cause headaches, tremors, memory loss, and several neurological and behavioral disorders. High-level exposure is harmful to the immune system, brain, kidneys, heart, and the developing nervous system in young children.
|Found in smoke detectors
|Exposure may lead to increased cancer risk
|Present in lead-acid batteries
|It can turn into corrosive sulfuric acid that can cause skin burns, blindness, and severe irritation to the nose and throat.
|6. Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs)
|Man-made chemicals added to industrial products such as plastics, electronic equipment, and textiles to make them nonflammable.
|It is a known carcinogenic. Long-term exposure can lead to developmental effects.
|7. Beryllium oxide
|Used in semiconductors for radio equipment and as filler for thermal grease on CPU heatsinks, gas lasers, and vacuum tubes.
|Its powdered form is carcinogenic, with particularly increased risk for lung cancer.
|8. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
|A synthetic resin commonly found in industrial and domestic products and the second most widely used and consumed form of plastic.
|It contains toxic chemical additives such as lead, cadmium, dioxins, and phthalates that can leak out over time.
Improper e-waste disposal can leak toxic chemicals in the air, soil, and water supply. The long-term damage is irreversible and can eventually cause changes to the ecosystem.
The e-wastes that are not recycled are illegally shipped to developing nations such as China, Ghana, and India where poor urban miners, both children and adults, extract precious metals through primitive means and without safety equipment. Urban mining is the process of recovering reusable materials from e-waste and metal scraps.
Exposure to e-waste pollution is damaging to human health and the effects of being exposed to improperly disposed e-waste vary. Most of those who are subjected to risks are urban scavengers who retrieve valuable components such as gold and silver from electronics. They primarily resort to primitive mining practices such as open-air burning, which can lead to primary and secondary exposure to heavy metals such as lead.
They burn electronic parts such as circuit boards or soak microchips in acid to crudely extract copper, silver, and gold. The worthless parts are dumped into landfills with hazardous consequences. The toxic metals often get mixed in the soil and water, and the harmful emissions from the burned devices lower the area's air quality. The combustion also releases particulates that can damage the lungs and the heart. Their poor working conditions are exacerbated by little to no sanitation and poverty.
These workers from the informal sectors are often unaware of the health risks associated with improperly handling e-waste. Despite their daily toil, most of them only earn less than two dollars a day for their efforts.
Additional Information: One of the biggest e-waste dumping grounds in the world is in Guiyu, China. Residents are at high risk of acquiring lead poisoning, neurological problems, respiratory ailments, and bone problems. In fact, 80% of the children residing in the area have lung diseases.
According to researchers, these toxic chemicals do not biodegrade and will continue to pose a threat for a long time in the area and the surrounding region. The toxic particles disperse in the air due to rampant open-air burning, which affects the 45 million people living in the nearby Pearl River Delta Region through its proliferation in the soil, which is used to grow crops, which are then turned to food.
Large quantities of raw materials are needed to make new electronics, and the earth is rapidly running out of them. Fortunately, as the awareness of the negative effects of waste is spreading, industries are pushing for greener solutions to obtain such resources, and one of them is by wisely utilizing what already exists.
In the context of e-waste, the amount of precious metals from electronics is exponentially larger than that which is mined from the ground. More specifically, there are 40 to 50 times the amount of gold and other metals in electronics than in ores from the earth.
Political scientist, Ruediger Kuehr, who is also a co-founder of the "Solving the E-Waste Problem" (StEP) initiative, found that over $21 billion dollars is spent on the production of electronic goods yearly. It takes 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver to make these devices. However, only 15 percent of them are recovered.
Kuehr and his colleagues believe that recycling is the solution because the rapid demand for electronic goods and short product cycles are increasing. Obviously, there is a lot of money to be made by recycling e-waste. The sad fact is that most of it comes from backyard recycling from wastes that were shipped from developed to developing nations.
The aim of managing electronic waste is to prevent a portion of it from ending up in landfills. Reusing, reducing, and recycling electronics are among the most common ways of handling them.
Like any garbage, e-waste should be disposed of responsibly. There are only twenty-five US states that have legislation regarding electronics recycling while there are seventeen US states that have e-waste disposal ban laws.
Batteries - Know Your E-Waste
Not all e-waste is equal, and there are devices with specific components that are more hazardous than others. Batteries that are composed of alkaline are recyclable, while mercury-based batteries should be handled with care. However, battery recycling is more common nowadays and there may be services available in your community.
Old electronic devices are even more likely to contain hazardous substances. When they are improperly disposed of, these toxins can leak out and pollute the air, water, and soil. As the trends for technology and electronics steer to more upgrades in the future, the demand for more devices increases, which will rapidly deplete Earth's already declining stores of natural resources.
The end goal of electronics recycling is to decrease, and in the long run, prevent e-waste from ending up in landfills. And finally, old devices are a veritable mine of raw materials that can be mined and repurposed to make new gadgets.
Basel Action Network or BAN is a trusted figure and champion of global environmental health. Their namesake comes from the 1989 United Nations Basel Convention, which moderates the disposal of e-waste, plastic pollution, and end-of-life ships among countries. It is an organization that promotes sustainability and prevents pollution from entering the shores of developing nations.
An e-Stewards Certification is a corporate certification that confers responsible companies and organizations with a commitment to ethical recycling. Companies that qualify are asset recovery companies, refiners, processors, and electronics recyclers that offer recycling, upgrading, repair, and refurbishment of electronics.
The e-Stewards certification can be obtained by any organization or entity from around the world. It is also recognized and supported by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Certified e-Stewards must uphold the best practices for recycling, securing data, ethical labor, and management of all toxic materials. All toxic e-waste exports should be responsibly and legally handled.
Responsible recycling or R2 is a leading certification for electronics recyclers in the industry. It is a standard intended for companies and those who wish to be R2 certified must ensure to have a recycling process that follows stringent health and safety guidelines that handle e-waste recycling responsibly.
The Basel Convention was adopted in response to the global outcry after discovering mountains of toxic waste in Africa and other developing countries. The unfair "toxic trade" was imported from abroad. The Convention was adopted on March 22, 1989, and enacted in 1992.
The heart of the Basel Convention is to protect humans and the planet from hazardous wastes. Its principal aims are to regulate the movement of hazardous waste and its proper disposal among developed and less developed countries.
Recycling electronics means safely disposing of them to ensure that they can either be repaired or reused. Proper disposal is crucial because they contain toxic substances. There are multiple ways you can recycle old gadgets. You can donate them back to companies so they can recycle them for you or take them to third-party recyclers.
The recycling process varies as there are different kinds of electronic devices. The metals and other substances suitable for recovery and the technologies used to reclaim them also make a difference.
The process starts with the collection and transportation of electronics to the recycling area. The devices are segregated by type. The process of manual disassembly begins and materials are categorized once again.
Other items that cannot be dismantled are shredded to separate salvageable materials from the plastics. Some centers use lasers to automatically sort solids like metals and non-metals. Optical sorting often uses cameras with the lasers to recognize an object's color, size, shape, chemical composition, and structural properties so the inspection is more accurate than manual sorting.
Some centers use strong magnets to pick up magnetic materials like steel and iron from other products. Other valuable non-metallic and metallic components such as aluminum, brass, and copper are sorted through as well. Down the line, plastic and glass are separated through water separation.
The major differences between formal and informal e-recycling centers are the first one is legal and adheres to health and safety standards. A formal e-waste recycling facility should be certified by either of the accredited certification standards: Responsible Recycling (R2) Standard for Electronics Recyclers or e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment (e-Stewards).
Both programs are beneficial to centers and their workers because they adhere to the best e-waste management practices. They also assess worker health, environment, and safety of all those involved in e-waste recycling. There are rigorous standards in place to obtain the certifications.
Responsible Recycling or R2 is the standard for responsible recycling among electronics recyclers. The non-profit organization, Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) and its partners house the R2 Standard to emphasize the importance of reusing, repairing, and recycling electronic products. R2 Certification involves many steps:
Being an e-Steward means joining hundreds of businesses, organizations, institutions, government agencies, and individuals in responsible e-recycling. The e-Stewards Standard means stopping the exportation of illegal e-waste to developing nations and upholding the global standard of e-waste reusing and recycling practices. There are several steps to being e-Stewards certified for recyclers:
Going to formal e-recycling centers is expensive, and that is one of the reasons for the rise of informal e-recycling. Informal e-recycling makes use of urban miners who resort to primitive methods. This exploitative business is cost-efficient because there are no regulations in place for dismantling methods and low salaries of workers, who are often immigrants.
|Strict Certification Processes
|Has advanced separation machines/technologies
|Crude dismantling methods using bare hands, incineration, and acid baths
|Adhere to health and safety standards
|No health and safety standards of any kind in place; no protective equipment
|Use pollution control technologies
|Using primitive methods lead to leaking toxic wastes in the environment
|Requires wiping devices of data
|No data wiping policies can result in a breach of data privacy
|Cost-efficient at the cost of exploiting workers
With more and more electronics being bought, used, and discarded every year, it is important to know how to recycle them. Fortunately, there is a trending awareness about e-waste and the harm it causes to humans, animals, and the planet. However, there is a lack of information on how an individual can recycle their own e-scraps.
All tech used in daily life will break down or be replaced inevitably. These gadgets record everything that it is used for. Your old tech devices will contain files like images, saved emails, conversation histories, documents, and even access or passwords to websites, social media, and emails. Before you toss, donate, or recycle your computer or smartphone, make it a habit to wipe the old data stored on it.
Even if you think there are no sensitive data in old gadgets because the device was barely used, it is best to check first. Before permanently deleting anything, make sure to back up your data and secure it.
Deleting files is simply not enough for devices like hard drives and laptops because there are programs that can retrieve deleted data. For your peace of mind, use a data erasing program to sanitize old tech properly. For sensitive files, you can encrypt them first before deleting them. This ensures that even if there is a possibility of retrieving the files, the data won't be read because it can't be decrypted.
For smartphones, delete all the information you can and then reset it to the factory setting to ensure that it is wiped clean. SIM cards should also be cut in half. If you would rather not deal with erasing everything from your devices, you can hire an expert to do it for you.
The National Association of Information Destruction or NAID is an international association dedicated to upholding the highest standards for proper paper and electronic data disposal. The NAID protects the interests of consumers and refines and enforces the processes of information destruction service providers worldwide.
Any organization or entity with a NAID AAA certification means that they have met the stringent qualifications for proper information destruction. There are over 20 areas of operational and security requirements including policies, procedures, transport, video surveillance, and employee screening, to name a few. These are in place to ensure confidential information is handled securely and e-waste is disposed of responsibly.
You can be confident handling your old gadgets to a NAID AAA certified service provider because your data is protected using the best practices. Obtaining a NAID AAA certification is a process and includes submission of application, initial audits, compliance verification, completing all final audits.
There are more than 900 NAID AAA Certified locations on five continents across the world. The IRS Publication 1075 (2016) places value on a NAID AAA Certification. Everyone can be a member of NAID, but it does not mean they are AAA certified. If they want to obtain the AAA certification, they have to comply with all the standards. To ensure that a company is AAA certified, ask for verification or check out this directory.
There are recycling and waste management centers that accept e-waste drop-offs.
For electronics that are still in working condition, you can donate them.
Old Tech You Can Donate:
Here are companies that recycle their own products:
Moving forward, we can all find solutions to minimize the effects of living a technologically-advanced, digitally-enabled lifestyle. One of the most sustainable ways to deter the growth of e-waste is to avoid or cut back on making more. We can all do our part but some of the responsibility lies with developers, politicians, and communities. As a final note, here’s what a summary of what we can all do to play a role in reducing e-waste in the decades to come, and beyond:
A good amount of electronics that are thrown away only have a bit of damage to them. If they can be salvaged by repairing, then it will help increase their longevity. Opting to repair electronics will also pave the way for repair jobs which, in turn, will help livelihoods.
Most electronics that are discarded are still viable for reuse. There are companies like PC Liquidations that acquire excess electronics then safely and securely wipe all data to reuse it again.
When electronics last longer, the need to replace them more often is diminished. When there is less production, there is less pollution.
This is a policy that makes manufacturers accountable for their products. They are given the financial and physical responsibility of properly disposing of post-consumer goods. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) hopes that this policy will push producers to curb production volume and upgrade product design to make disposal efficient and convenient.
One of the best ways to deter old electronics from going straight to landfills is for communities to have accessible recycling centers. Services such as old tech pickup and drop-offs can mean a difference for safe e-waste recycling.