The COVID-19 pandemic habits of the past two years have had more people using more electronic devices for work, education and entertainment from home.
This growing use of electronics, while critical to maintain our activities from home, has a downside: a growing amount of electronic waste. Electronic waste, or recycling e-waste for short, refers to discarded electronics that find their way into the waste stream. It can include anything from old cellphones, broken tablets, obsolete laptops or outdated desk top computers.
To give a visual image of the increase, the amount of global electronic waste in 2019 weighed the equivalent of about 350 cruise ships. In 2022, it will weigh the equivalent of 375 cruise ships. According to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Forum (WEEE Forum), in 2021 there were 57.4 million tons of e-waste. Based on current trends, predictions are that total e-waste generated worldwide will reach 67 million tons by 2030, nearly doubling the output from 2014.
According to a recent UN report, in 2019 only about 17.4 percent of discarded electronics were appropriately recycled. The United States that year produced about 6.92 million tons of e-waste, about 46 pounds per person.
The challenges and complications of handling e-waste have made it an increasingly urgent environmental issue.
As the useful life of electronic equipment gets shorter and shorter, and the list of electronic gadgets we use gets longer and longer, here are the most significant reasons why recycling e-waste is important:
- It is critical to keep electronic waste out of landfills. Electronic devices are comprised of toxic substances and heavy metals. Materials such as chromium, cadmium, mercury and lead can leach out of a device and into the soil if improperly disposed of in a landfill, contaminating the air and waterways according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.) Recycling this material not only keeps toxic substances out of landfills, it also saves landfill space. The EPA estimates that there are about 60 million tons of e-waste globally per year. For these reasons, there are numerous state laws that now ban e-waste in landfills.
- Electronic products are made of valuable materials such as gold, silver, and platinum along with copper, aluminum, plastic and glass. Most electronic devices are nearly 100 percent recyclable. Through the recycling process these materials can be reclaimed. As an illustration, according to the EPA, if one million cell phones were recycled, it would yield:
- 35,274 pounds of copper
- 772 pounds of silver
- 75 pounds of gold
- 33 pounds of palladium
- Reclaiming valuable materials from recycling means there will be decreased demand for new raw materials. This helps conserve natural resources that would otherwise have to be mined or newly manufactured, which requires significantly more energy to produce.
- Discarded electronic devices can also be kept out of landfills if they are refurbished, reused and donated to a worthy cause. A quick Google search will provide a list of organizations in most areas that rebuild old electronics and provide them to those who would otherwise go without. “Reuse” is an important component of keeping material out of the waste stream. The EPA’s webpage has a listing of donation programs at: epa.gov/recycle/electronics-donation-and-recycling#where.
A number of electronics retailers such as Best Buy and Staples accept discarded devices for recycling. Manufacturers such as Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and Dell will also accept their old products to recycle. Some government agencies and environmental groups have established databases to help consumers find a recycling location nearby. The website Earth911.com is one example of an extensive recycling database. Database users enter the device they want recycled and their zip code and a list of potential recycling sites are displayed.
E-waste may make its way into scrapyards, mixed in with cars, old appliances and industrial scrap handled by the scrap metal recycling industry. Individual recyclers have different approaches for how to handle these items, but more progress is being made on how to extract valuable material and move these items through the recycling process. ScrapWare Corp., of Rockville, Maryland, provides and services software supporting the scrap metal recycling industry and has observed the industry increasingly deal with electronics as part of the waste stream.
Municipalities and manufacturers are also playing a role in managing recycling e-waste. When state and local governments evaluate a recycling program, more are considering how to handle e-waste as part of their waste disposal system. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 states and the District of Columbia have laws regulating e-waste. On the manufacturing end, products such as mobile phones have been designed to become obsolete faster and faster, however, manufacturers are now being encouraged to develop products with longer life spans. More electronics manufacturers are also looking at design elements that will make devices easier to disassemble so that the valuable materials can be more easily extracted and recycled.
Today, with work-from-home and personal device movie streaming trends entrenched, municipalities, manufacturers and recyclers are re-doubling efforts to deal with e-waste, the world’s fastest growing trash stream.
About ScrapWare Corporation: Since 1989, Rockville, Maryland-based ScrapWare Corporation has been the software of choice for the recycling industry. Its ease of installation and simplicity saves users time and money, while helping them achieve compliance and maintain accurate business insights. With state-of-the-art functionality that‘s tailored to each organization’s unique requirements, ScrapWare is an advanced dynamic software solution that alleviates the most pressing recycling industry worries. For more information, please call (301) 517-8500 or visit https://www.scrapware.com/.