July 1, 2021

How Improper Electronics Disposal Can Hurt the Environment

When your old laptop finally breaks and you get a new one, what do you do with the old one? Do you simply throw it away?

Hopefully, this triggers a red flag for you. Electronics need to be recycled properly if we’re going to protect the environment. But what is it about throwing electronics away that’s so harmful to the environment in the first place?

The Effects of eWaste

These are some of the most important and most damaging environmental effects of irresponsible electronics disposal:

  • Sheer volume and landfill space. Your smartphone isn’t very big; it’s probably the size of your hand, approximately. So you wouldn’t think it takes up much space in a landfill – especially when compared to the amount of garbage your household generates regularly. But the truth is, Americans purchase new cell phones every 12 to 18 months – and only 10 percent of cell phones are properly recycled. That’s a lot of phones sitting in landfills. And remember, eWaste isn’t just about phones – there are also laptops, computer towers, monitors, TVs, tablets, and dozens of other types of electronic devices taking up space.
  • Toxic materials. Modern electronic devices are stunningly sophisticated, capable of accomplishing a wide range of technological tasks. But the reason they’re so advanced is that they rely on the interaction of dozens of different materials, including lead, zinc, barium, palladium, platinum, chromium, and gold, as well as flame retardant chemicals. In a phone, these elements aren’t dangerous. But when left to decompose, they can be deadly. When heated past a certain point, they can be vaporized, polluting the air and harming the ecosystem. When it rains repeatedly, these heavy elements can leach into the soil – and even the groundwater. Over time, it can affect animal and plant populations and even get into our drinking water.
  • Demand for more mining. Electronics depend on a variety of rare metals and other elements to function properly. To find and use those elements, humans all over the world are responsible for mining them. The mining and refining processes are energy-intensive and, in some cases, environmentally destructive. There’s a finite supply of these elements that we’re raiding, and we’re polluting heavily in the process of getting them. Recycling a device frees up these elements, so they can be used again in a future electronic device; by contrast, throwing the device away prevents these materials from being used again.
  • Local differences. Different areas have different regulations and standards for eWaste recycling. In many developing countries, there are no laws mandating the recycling of old electronic devices – and environmental standards are lax, allowing even more pollution to take place.
  • Compounding effects. It’s also troubling that the environmental pollution and destruction from old electronics could have a compounding effect. As more devices enter mainstream consumer culture and as we continue throwing devices away regularly, we’re going to see a buildup of toxic material in our soil, water, and air – and increasingly devastating effects.

How Electronics Are Recycled

So what’s the alternative?

Electronics recycling hasn’t been perfected, but it’s by far the best option we have to get rid of devices that are no longer useful. If a device is still functional, you might be able to resell it or refurbish it. Otherwise, you can break it down to its raw materials and reuse it.

Electronics recyclers typically collect all manner of devices from their customers. If you bring in an old device, they’ll pay you a fixed amount, typically based on the type of device and/or its weight. From there, they’ll send your device to be completely destroyed and shredded down to its constituent materials.

These raw materials are then sorted and prepared for resale, processing, or distribution. For example, the recycler might take some of the elements and sell them to a manufacturer, so they can be used in future devices.

Properly Disposing of Your Electronics

If you want to start properly recycling your electronics, there are a few simple steps you can follow:

  1. Find the right recycler. First, you’ll want to find the right recycling facility. Look for a facility that specializes in eWaste recycling – and investigate to see what their recycling process is.
  2. Evaluate and prepare your devices. Some of your devices may be refurbished and resold. Those that can’t be recycled. And no matter what, you should completely erase your data from your old devices.
  3. Drop them off. When you’re ready, simply drop off your devices at the recycling facility and move on with your day.

Recycling is neither difficult nor inaccessible. If you live in the United States, it shouldn’t take much time or effort to find a qualified recycling facility near you – and put an end to improper eWaste disposal.

About the author 

Peter Hatch

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