Sustaining

E-Waste: Managing It, Preventing It

There’s a certain irony in how the more that technology evolves, the shorter the lifespan of devices becomes. TVs, laptops, smartphones, and other gadgets will be thrown away once their batteries die, and we’ll be quick to replace them with the latest models. This discrepancy doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a common practice for companies to release updates of their software and discontinue support for older versions. This makes it easier and cheaper for consumers to buy a new device than repair an old one, thus keeping the sales steady.

And while it’s always exciting to get the latest iPhone model, what we don’t often think about is how the discarded, older devices pile up, resulting in e-waste.

What is e-waste?

Electronic waste includes any electronic device that has reached the end of its useful life, or is no longer wanted and simply discarded. These devices can be in good working condition or unusable.

According to the United Nations Global E-waste Monitor report, electronic waste is set to grow to a staggering 75 million metric tons by 2030. This is alarming not only because many of the discarded devices can be reused, but also because e-waste leaves a significant environmental footprint.

Electronic devices contain a mix of materials, such as gold, silver, copper, lithium, and titanium, which can be recycled. However, they also contain toxic chemicals, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and flame retardants, which can cause massive damage to the environment.

If e-waste ends up in landfills, it may contaminate soil and water, affecting ecosystems and biodiversity. If e-waste is burned, it will pollute the air. Either way, improper handling of electronic devices poses a grave threat to the environment and human health.

What is the best way to dispose of old electronics?

There are several ways to get rid of old electronics, from reselling and donating to recycling them. However, before you get started, make sure to delete all of your personal information from your devices to protect your sensitive data. Also, if the device has rechargeable batteries, be sure to remove them and recycle them separately.

Donating

Donating your old electronics is a great way to give back to the community, but remember only to donate items that still function reliably and don’t need major repairs or replacement parts. Local schools, libraries, employment centers, and homeless shelters often look for items such as cell phones, computers, and TVs. Also, you can donate to charities and nonprofit organizations, such as Goodwill, Computers with Causes, Secure the Call, human-I-T, and PickUp Please.

Reselling

If your electronics are in good working condition, consider selling them through platforms like Amazon, eBay, and Craigslist. Facebook Marketplace, for example, doesn’t require fees, and you can select the pick-up only option and have the buyer come to your door.

You can sell your old electronics even if they’re broken. Third-party buyback services like Decluttr, It’s Worth More, and Beagle Brain accept used, functional, and broken devices. The price can vary based on the age and functionality of the device.

Recycling

Recycling old electronics safely and responsibly reduces emissions and the number of resources required for manufacturing new devices. According to the EPA, recycling plastics and precious metals in old cell phones can save enough energy to power up to 24,000 U.S. homes for a year.

Ethical issues

Recycling is the obvious solution to the problem of e-waste, but things are more complicated than they seem. A study conducted by Basil Action Network, a nonprofit dedicated to recycling responsibly, found that 40 percent of the e-waste supposedly recycled in the U.S. was actually exported. Most of the electronics ended up in Asia and other developing countries, where recycling practices aren’t so well regulated.

Informal recycling frequently occurs in countries like Africa, China, and India. Adults and children alike sort components of devices or burn them in an attempt to melt non-valuable parts and recover valuable materials, such as gold. During the process, they handle dangerous chemicals such as mercury and acid without wearing any protective gear, and likely, without realizing the health risks of their actions.

Finding the right recycler

It’s essential to find a reliable recycling organization to be sure that your old electronics are handled responsibly. Any e-waste recycler that’s certified by Basil Action Network is a safe bet. Additionally, you can look for organizations that are R2 certified, which means they meet the world’s most widely adopted standard for responsible e-waste recycling.

Tech firms

Many electronic manufacturers and retailers have recycling programs. For example, Apple has a GiveBack program that offers gift cards or in-store credit in exchange for old devices. Sprint’s Buyback program offers account credits for cell phones. You can search programs by product or company using the chart on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

Prevention is key

Preventing the buildup of e-waste means being a good consumer and re-evaluating how often you actually need to buy new gadgets. Also, it’s important to take good care of your devices, clean them regularly, and keep them in protective cases (for phones and laptops) to extend their durability.

Buying eco-friendly products also plays an important role in preventing e-waste. Before you make a purchase, be sure to read the labels and look for products with certifications such as ENERGY STAR, Cradle to Cradle Certified, and B Corporation.

The right to repair

Despite many tech companies supporting the “quick buy” system to sustain high sales, advances have been made to educate people on how to repair devices on their own. For example, Apple started a Self Service Repair initiative that gives customers access to iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 parts and tools. Microsoft released a video tutorial on how to open up and swap components out of its Surface Laptop SE, which is primarily intended for children and educational purposes.

Managing and preventing e-waste requires a collective effort on the part of manufacturers and consumers alike. Better-designed devices and reasonable consumption can work together to minimize the amount of discarded electronics and prevent environmental and social issues caused by e-waste.

-Ana Marković

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

 

 

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Ana Marković is a freelance writer based in Novi Sad, Serbia. After reading every Sherlock Holmes book there is, she decided to get a hat, a pipe, and a degree in English. What she loves most are her family, friends, and the Beatles, not necessarily in that order. When she's not writing, she's either at the movies or baking/eating cakes.

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