In a dusty, forgotten corner of a cupboard, there lies a growing collection of broken, malfunctioning - or maybe just old - electronics in all shapes and forms. This type of collection of outdated electronics can be found in cupboards and drawers all around the world. Many of us can relate to this anecdote, as we tend to stockpile old cables and phones for “emergencies”, while also replacing them with shiny new models with fewer buttons and more capabilities. It seems wrong to just throw them in the trash, right? According to the United Nations University’s Global e-waste monitor, there are around 50 million metric tonnes of electronics being disposed of each year. With that dusty pile of cables in mind, this statistic is not so surprising.
The scale of the e-waste problem
E-waste - or any outdated electronic item that we dispose of - is the world’s fastest growing waste stream. The massive amount we dispose of is estimated to only keep increasing, unless we start doing something to reverse this trend. There are several reasons for the increase in waste. As the world’s population continues to grow, economic prosperity and access to electronics is increasing, too, and more and more of us own multiple versions of (sometimes the same) electronic gadgets. Not only that, but technological development is fast paced, with prices dropping, often leading to lower quality products with shorter lifespans. Many of these items are also perceived as being difficult to repair or replace, with many brands spending millions on creating demand for the latest models and designs, even when much of our older technology remains functioning and serviceable. Brands are also guilty of designing for obsolescence - the ultimate driver of e-waste. Unsurprisingly, developed countries contribute most dramatically to this problem, but other countries around the world are rapidly catching up.
Why should we recycle our e-waste?
Our old electronics contain a multitude of valuable, recyclable materials, mixed in with many toxic substances which are harmful to human health and the environment. Materials such as lead, mercury and cadmium must be managed and disposed of safely to not become a harmful health hazard for all. Instead, e-waste is often mixed with regular waste streams, where it ends up being incinerated, added to landfill sites or being exported to developing countries to deal with. Not only that, but e-waste exporters generally pick destinations without effective legislation to regulate the disposal of this toxic waste stream. Parts of Western Africa and Asia are common locations to dump these items, where local populations are often involved in the process to extract and sell any materials of value. With most e-waste requiring disassembly, burning, or even being dissolved in acid to extract materials, protective clothing and proper practices are essential. However, this job often belongs to local peoples or even children, leading to severe health problems like brain, lung, nervous system, kidney or heart damage. Toxic residues can also leak into the soil, contaminating the earth, water and air as they escape, seriously affecting ecosystems that local communities use to grow food, access water and live their daily lives. Additionally, extracting and refining materials to produce our electronics also create greenhouse gases, another reason (if there are not enough!) to recycle our e-waste.
How do we recycle our old electronics?
With all this in mind, how DO we recycle our old electronics to minimize these problems? Although some solutions may depend on your location, here are some ideas for our old electronics, and what we can do to lessen the load of e-waste on our planet:
Postpone that upgrade
Do you really need that newest edition iPhone? Are your headphones really that bad? If we think twice about replacing our old phones or other devices so quickly, we can help reduce the scale of the problem.
Reuse it, don’t lose it
Can the item be repaired easily, or does it still work well? Try giving it to friends and family, or donate it to a charity for someone in need.
Try returning the item to the manufacturer
If your item is broken beyond repair, or unusable, the best place to start is the manufacturer. Although many do not take back goods at their end of life, some companies are changing this by accepting items to help recycle them correctly. The more we ask, the more the market will listen.
Take them to a dedicated e-waste recycling facility
If you have exhausted all other options, you can find a trustworthy organization who can recycle your e-waste. Many organizations have sprung up to do just that, and you can search for local facilities using Recycle Now.
Planning for the future
Although electronic waste is not the main focus of our global recycling efforts, it is truly an under-reported yet significant global issue. Precious natural resources are wasted, emissions are manifold and human health is at risk, especially in the developing countries tasked with recycling these products. Additionally, it is often an unnecessary waste stream, with many of us replacing electronics due to want, rather than need. If we can change the way we value our items, and begin disposing of them correctly, in facilities designed to process them safely, we can make a big difference to the growing problem of electronic waste. We can also select more sustainable options in the first place, be that a recycled phone case, bamboo keyboard or recyclable electric toothbrush heads! When we begin to consider the wider effects of our purchases, we too can inspire others to be more conscious in their own choices. E-waste is a problem that we can begin to tackle in our own homes, and the faster we take action, the more the future generations will have to thank us for.
Written by Cicely Sinclair