When it comes to getting rid of our old electronics, it’s pretty much a Wild West free-for-all, with few laws, lots of bad guys, and everyone out for themselves. Despite a recent rise in eco-consciousness seen in bans on plastic bags and regulations phasing out incandescent lightbulbs in favor of more energy-efficient CFL bulbs, we haven’t really even begun to address the problem. Let’s start fixing that right now.
“E-waste” is the catch-all for discarded electronic products, but the term is most often used in reference to gadgets like cell phones (Americans replace their cell phones about every 18 month), printers, tablets, televisions, and computers. According to iFixit (more on these guys later), an estimated 20 million tons of e-waste are generated each year, with the U.S. alone contributing 3.4 million tons annually. Consider this: A full 75% of all our e-waste gets thrown away. That’s an enormous, growing mountain of garbage. In total, “it’s spread between dumping, recycling, and exporting,” says Larry Herst, CEO of Triangle Ecycling in Durham, NC. “But there’s very little current info” about where it all ends up—and that alone is terrifying.
High-tech garbage isn’t just a space-sucker, it’s also highly noxious: Dumped devices release known carcinogens and other toxins like lead, mercury, barium, and other heavy metals into the ground, water, and air. It’s a dirty and dangerous problem that’s growing—but, unfortunately, regulation isn’t keeping up.
Even the EPA is behind the times. Its policy is that e-waste generated by individuals isn’t considered “hazardous”—which means your e-waste can be treated like normal household garbage, and will end up in solid-waste landfills or incinerators despite the known dangers of e-waste components. In the absence of strict local or state regulations, we’re effectively leaving everyone to do what they will with their e-waste, damn the consequences.
The EPA also states that recyclers are responsible for determining what is waste and what isn’t. But lack of regulation means that even well-intentioned recyclers might be contributing to the problem: E-Stewards (a recycling advocacy initiative from the non-profit Basel Action Network) estimates that 50–80% of what’s taken in as recycling actually ends up being exported to the developing world.
The U.N. initiated an international treaty to prevent developed countries from simply shipping their hazardous waste materials to poorer nations. Known as the Basel Convention, the treaty took effect in 1992—but has never been ratified by the U.S. That means that here, recycling efforts from big companies are completely voluntary. Guess how well that works.
What happens once e-waste reaches its destination in Africa, China, or India can easily be described as nightmarish: Ghana’s Agbogbloshie is the largest e-waste dump site in the world, and is commonly referred to as “Sodom and Gomorrah” even by locals, according to a 2011 Newsweek report. At the dumping site, toxic e-waste is ripped apart by hand and even burned to get scrap material. Many of the workers are children—usually young boys—who salvage raw materials like copper and tin to make their living of $2.50 a day.
According to Al Jazeera, most of these young boys, operating without knowledge of—or protection from—these environmental risks will die from cancer before age 30.
The e-Stewards nonprofit initiative has a certification program for recyclers that essentially guarantees what happens to your electronics when you’re done, so you can feel confident recycling e-waste. Certified recyclers are audited and verified to use “best practices,” including provisions that e-waste can’t be put in landfills or “processed” using harmful child labor. They call it “downstream accountability”: Certified recyclers have proven they’re handling electronic waste safely and responsibly at every step of the process. Before you send your waste off to a local recycling program, ask them if they’re e-Stewards certified, or go to estewards.org to find a certified e-Steward recycler.
Many discarded electronics still have plenty of potential use in them and don’t need to be junked just yet. Big brands—and some entrepreneurs—have already recognized this and created recycling programs and even marketplaces for used gadgets. Gazelle.com, the biggest of the third-party sites, offers cash for your old devices, especially smartphones, tablets, and laptops. They refurbish what they can, and have set up their own resale shop to let consumers buy “certified pre-owned” electronics. This is a great choice if your device isn’t broken or too old, like an iPhone from a couple generations back that needs a new battery or screen, for example. Think of it like a used-car dealership: You’re trading in an old device for credit toward a new one—which is great if you’ve got a gently used Civic, but might not make sense if you’ve got a Gremlin that will probably end up in the scrap heap anyway.
Apple has a similar program, which offers 10% off a new iPod if you bring in an old one for recycling, and trades an Apple gift card for a used phone, tablet, or computer that still has value. The bad news is that Apple makes the decision about how much, if anything, your device is worth; but they do reuse or recycle it for you regardless. Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba are just a few examples of other manufacturers that have buyback, reuse, and recycling programs in place.
Bottom line: If you’re replacing a device that may still have life in it, check out third-party sites that focus on refurbishing, not recycling, and manufacturer-based programs that focus on dealing with waste responsibly, either through resale or recycling.
It’s not just a cliché that modern Americans don’t repair things, they just throw them away and buy new ones. It’s true, and the electronic do-it-yourself advocate iFixit has set out to change that mindset with a repair-focused mission that’s part advocacy, part how-to. They’ve created an open-source site where you can find guides and tutorials for all kinds of electronics repairs, from iPads to toasters, or even add your own repair guide to contribute to the knowledge database. They also sell tools and replacement parts to make repair more convenient and help keep the site afloat without any advertising or corporate bias.
When it comes time to buy a new product, beware of “greenwashing,” a kind of marketing that promotes a product as green without the facts to back it up. Much like claims about “organic” food, there are a lot of promises that may sound great but mean very little. Checking in with iFixit and Greenpeace is a responsible option.
In addition to showing you how to repair what you have, iFixit also helps you figure out which devices are the greenest because they’re easiest to repair and recycle. They call it the “right to repair,” and point out that corporate bottom lines actually benefit from disposability, so many manufacturers have taken steps to actually make repair harder, such as setting rules about who can repair their products, and how.
Nikon, for example, will only sell replacement parts to authorized repair stations. Scott Jarvie, a photographer, likens Nikon’s repair policies to being unable to take your car to your favorite mechanic, and instead being forced to use the car company’s own repair shop. The lack of choice favors the company over the consumer, a fact anyone who’s had a car repaired at a questionable dealership can attest to. It’s a great argument for checking out iFixit’s “repairability guides” and latest blog posts on new devices at ifixit.org.
Greenpeace publishes a “Guide to Greener Electronics,” a resource for looking at the big picture of environmentally friendly electronics manufacturing and recycling. Essentially a manufacturer report card, the guide gives companies from Nokia to Sony a 1–10 rating on a whole range of factors, including use of hazardous materials and conflict minerals, energy efficiency of the final product, and use of clean energy in manufacturing. For the latest updates, check out the “Greener Electronics” section at greenpeace.org.
Perhaps “detox” is the best way to think about our problem with tech trash: If we can get over our cultural mindset that “new” is the gold standard, everything is disposable, and the cost of devices is limited to the sticker price, there’s a good chance we can make more educated decisions about what we buy, and hold manufacturers to higher standards. We’ve done it with cars (the Prius was just a twinkle in someone’s eye during the ’70s gas crisis) and food (the success of Whole Foods proves we care about what goes into our mouths).
E-waste is the next frontier for real environmental change.