“A mountain that just keeps growing.” What you should know about the e-waste left behind by your devices

“A mountain that just keeps growing.” What you should know about the e-waste left behind by your devices

The technology sector’s decades-long push for “innovation or death” has resulted in a long list of useful and eye-catching tech household products, but many of these devices are also in need of replacement almost as quickly as new technology emerges.

The result of this so-called planned obsolescence, combined with a limited number of ways to repair older devices over the years, is a tsunami of e-waste. And the consequences of this go far beyond the headache of figuring out what to do with the clutter in your home.

“Planned obsolescence only makes it worse. People now expect to get a new computer every three or four years and a new phone every two years,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based e-waste monitoring group. “It’s a mountain that just keeps growing.”

The latest data from the United Nations shows that the world generated a staggering 53.6 tonnes of e-waste in 2019, and only 17.4% of that was recycled. The burden and damage caused by e-waste often falls on developing countries. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that an “undetermined amount of used electronics is being shipped from the United States and other developed countries to developing countries that lack the ability to refuse imports or adequately handle these materials.” The World Health Organization (WHO) warned recently year that the disposal and processing of e-waste can have a range of “adverse effects on children’s health,” including changes in lung function, DNA damage and an increased risk of some chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease later in life Life.

In addition, there are more than 18 million children and young people who are “actively engaged” in the informal e-waste processing industry, the WHO warned. Children and young people are often used to combing through mountains of e-waste in search of valuable materials such as copper and gold “because their little hands are more dexterous than adults’,” WHO said.

E-waste is “all about environmental justice on a global scale,” Puckett said. “It’s about stopping rich countries from dumping their waste and dirty technology on developing countries.”

A man sits in front of e-waste or e-waste from computers at a workshop in New Delhi, India, in July 2020.

The growing environmental crisis is now catching the attention of lawmakers from Europe to the United States, as well as communities in developing countries where e-waste has traditionally been offshored.

EU officials last month passed new law requiring all phones and electronics to use a standard, brand-independent charger, with the potential to limit the number of different cables the average consumer needs to own. Three progressive American lawmakers wrote a letter urging the United States to follow suit.

Sens. Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders said the new EU policy “has the potential to significantly reduce e-waste and help consumers who are tired of rummaging through junk drawers full of tangled chargers to find a compatible charger find or buy a new one,” in a letter to the US Secretary of Commerce. The senators alluded to the trending bipartisan theme of “pitching strong tech companies” in the interests of consumers and the environment.

For now, however, regulation around e-waste is mostly at the state level, and there are few Signs of an imminent further development of federal policy. In the absence of that, the onus remains on consumers – and businesses – to take the initiative and find better ways to deal with old electronics.

What consumers and businesses can do about it

When Corey Dehmey worked in corporate IT departments, he had that figure out what to do with hundreds of company computers that are no longer up to date. Now, as CEO of the non-profit organization Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), he is part of a group trying to tackle the e-waste crisis by strengthening collaboration between government, the private sector and consumers.

“E-waste is the result of not planning the product throughout its lifecycle,” Dehmey said. “We’re just reacting to a problem we created years ago. So if we’re going to get in front of this thing, we have to think about these things on the front end – what we’re designing and what we’re buying as consumers, too.”

To this end, SERI has established and monitors its own e-waste recycling certification standards that ensure facilities properly dispose of e-waste. It also hosts events for companies and other stakeholders and engages in lobbying to urge companies and governments to adopt more sustainable approaches to electronics development.

“We have to find ways to use it [an electronic device] longer, repair, reuse,” Dehmey said, noting that this would require a mindset shift for both consumers and businesses.

There has been reason for optimism in recent months. The rise in e-waste has led to increased pressure on manufacturers to ease restrictions on fasteners for individuals and independent repairers in a push known as the “Right to Repair” movement. President Joe Biden last year issued an executive order directing the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules requiring companies to allow home repairs, and the FTC vowed to “eradicate” illegal repair restrictions. Now a handful of tech companies have launched initiatives to help fix old devices. Earlier this year, Apple and Samsung opened their self-service repair stores, offering parts for users looking for do-it-yourself repairs for their smartphones. Parts promised by Google for repairing Pixel phones will be available to the public later this year.On Friday, March 24, 2017, a seven-foot sea of ​​e-waste blanketed the landscape at Westmoreland Cleanways and Recycling in Unity, Pennsylvania.

Various coalitions have also formed in recent years to enable consumers to dispose of their devices responsibly. For example, Puckett helped launch the e-waste recycling initiative e-Stewards, which certifies and audits electronics recyclers to ensure they properly dispose of e-waste to “very strict standards.”

Consumers can use this tool to find nearby recycling centers. SERI also offers an online tool to find a certified recycling center.

Jeff Seibert, the chief provocateur (yes, that’s his real title) at SERI, also recommends consumers check with their local community to see if they have a specific e-waste recycling plan in place. A handful of U.S. retailers, including Staples and Best Buy, also have programs that allow consumers to bring e-waste to recycling when broader infrastructure isn’t in place. Other companies, including Apple, have programs to offer credit or free recycling in exchange for trading used equipment.

Before deciding to donate or recycle used electronics, the EPA recommends that you consider upgrading a computer’s hardware or software rather than purchasing a brand new product. If you choose to recycle, the EPA urges consumers to remove any batteries that may need to be recycled separately. The agency says recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent of the electricity consumed by more than 3,500 US homes in a year. For every million cell phones recycled, 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered, according to the agency.

Aside from those options, Seibert is simply asking consumers to think about electronics the way we think about cars: We don’t scrap our vehicles when we need new tires or when the windshield cracks.

“Everyone wants to do the right thing,” Seibert said. “So we need to give them the resources to do that and that’s a work in progress.”