The device you’re using to read this post will eventually break, catch a virus or simply die of old age. Growing up is rough. And while the life of an electronic device is certainly finite, its impact on the world can be infinite. What we’re talking about is e-waste, discarded electronics that sit in landfills and recycling centers around the world. The pollutants they carry can have an everlasting impact on the environment.
E-waste can go one of two ways: sit in a landfill or be recycled and used to build new products. As the world’s demand for smart products grows, more people have to make the decision of what to do with their unused electronics. By now, many consumers have accessible options to properly dispose of their electronics. It comes down to knowledge, convenience and willingness to do so.
Ask yourself: Would I take the time to research and utilize a recycling center or would I throw away my devices in the bottom of my trash can? That decision likely relies upon whether or not you realize what a mounting problem e-waste has grown to be.
Why is e-waste a problem?
While the consumption of TVs, cellphones and computer equipment have continued to increase, their lifespans have continued to decrease. So more people are using electronics that don’t last as long. All of this adds up to a growing mass of e-waste. With the volume of e-waste expected to grow three to five percent per year, it’s easy to see why a whole industry has been built around it.
The sheer amount of e-waste just in the United States is astonishing. Take a look.
The rise in e-waste recycling rates is encouraging, but even the EPA (who compiled the numbers) admits a nearly 10 percent increase in recycling is highly unlikely. Such a large jump in a single year is likely due to better tracking methods. Regardless, it would be hard to consider four out of ten electronic devices recycled a success.
So why do these numbers matter? With so many dead electronics not being properly processed, it’s inevitable that toxic materials will spread into the environment. And there’s a long list of hazardous substances contained in electronics that can be harmful to people. Improper disposal leads to a much higher risk of exposure to this list.
What happens to e-waste?
Say you go through the proper protocol and take your electronics to a donation center, recycler or electronic take-back program. What happens next? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you’d think.
Lax e-waste regulations in the U.S. and abroad makes it tough to know exactly where discarded electronics end up. While some recyclers do refurbish materials and use separation devices to salvage usable metals, it’s often easier and more profitable to send e-waste to developing countries. But the e-waste recycling processes in these countries are even less regulated, and safe practices are rarely followed.
Still, changing our habits as consumers can go a long way. Finding a reputable recycler in your area is the most reliable mode of disposal. Ask if your old equipment can be reused or what will happen to it if it cannot. Take, for example, Urban E Recycling in Tampa. Their free pickup services take almost all electronics and provide the following:
- Ensure data destruction by shredding the hard drive and certifying it via email.
- Recycling 100% of the e-waste they pick up and separating the components.
- Shipping materials to U.S. companies or the Mitsubishi plant in Japan.
- The plant smelts the materials and recovers gold, silver, palladium, aluminum and copper.
“Our philosophy is, ‘people will do the right thing if it’s convenient.’ If people understood how dangerous it is to let these elements seep into the ground and water systems they might care more. Recycling helps keep the earth clean and reduces the mining for precious metals, and it would eventually reduce the cost of new items.”
Dell Rabinowitz | Urban E Recycling
The amount of e-waste we produce will undoubtedly continue to grow. The question is whether the number of people who recycle it will continue to grow as well. Providing more convenient options to do so is critical to accomplishing this. And implementing laws and regulations centered around the practices of recycling centers is just as important. So it turns out the answer to “what happens to e-waste?” is an ever-evolving one, reflecting changes in both people’s attitudes and the way recyclers do business.
Click the graphic below to check out our e-waste infographic and learn more about the effects it has on the human body.