What happens to our e-waste? How is tech recycled?

Next up in my “where does our waste go” series, we’re talking about electronic waste. Where does our technological waste go?

The value of recycling tech

First, let’s address the fact that tech waste is the most expensive waste. Tech is made up of many precious metals often including copper, gold, silver, and more. It costs a lot to mine new materials when instead we could be recycling our old tech. But, just how much tech to we discard of each year? In 2016, the world as a whole discarded 49 million tons of e-waste and by 2021, they estimate that number to be over 57 million tons. Obviously this continues to increase as technology becomes more essential to our lives.

The US EPA described recycling technology as very valuable. One metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40-800 times the amount of gold and 30-40 times the amount of copper that can be mined from one metric ton of ore in the US. Basically, if you can choose to only recycle one item, recycle your technology as it is extremely valuable. The estimated monetary value of recoverable materials in electronics in 2016 was $64.6 billion and only 20% was recycled that year.

Not only this, but allowing technology to be buried, burned, or dropped into the ocean can be very hazardous. They contain heavy metals like lead, mercury, and so forth. It is also becoming harder for manufacturers to come across raw materials to use. Plus, it is more expensive to mine raw materials than it is to recycle old ones. This is not usually the case when it comes to recycling like we saw with plastic, glass, and paper. So, overall, recycling technology is extremely valuable and should be encouraged throughout the world.

Currently e-waste accounts for 2% of US landfills but accounts for 70% of overall toxic waste in the US.

How is tech recycled?

Formal recycling is done in actually recycling facilities with proper safety measures, proper PPE, and proper equipment. Here it is usually the disassembling of electronics, separating the parts, cleaning, and then recycling. Of course, handling e-waste can be dangerous which increases the amount in which it costs to recycle, especially domestically. Technology is another instance in which the US then exports their waste. In the US, there are also no federal laws mandating the recycling of technology or that forbids the export of e-waste. It is rather up to the states.

Then we have informal recycling. This is done is unlicensed and unregulated areas of Asia where wealthy nations send their tech. It is here than men, women, and children recover precious metals from e-waste. They do so by burning devices to melt away the plastic and use mercury and acids to recover gold, almost entirely by hand. They might not be given PPE and might not even know what they are doing is dangerous or toxic. Not to mention, e-waste toxins have an effect on their air, soil, and water in these areas.

Where is tech recycled?

The US is the second largest producer of e-waste behind China. The US in 2012 produced 10 million tons of e-waste alone which equates to roughly 64 pounds per person and only 29% of this was recycled. The rest usually goes to landfill. Precious metals and harmful chemicals end up in the ground only to sit there for hundreds if not thousands of years. Though, of this 29% supposedly recycled in the US, 40% of that was found to be exported instead. This is when it is sent to “developing countries,” usually in Asia, where regulations might not exist and work is often unethical and unfair.

Here is a link to a GPS tracker that shows the path of US e-waste

Jim Puckett and his team put GPS trackers on old computers, TVs, and other tech and dropped them off at various donation centers, recycling centers, and more. Their goal is to find out what these supposedly “green,” “eco-friendly” companies do with our old tech. Of these 200, he found about 1/3 went overseas, some traveling as far as 12,000 miles. This included 14 devices that were dropped off at recycling facilities. Other devices ended up in Mexico, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Thailand, and many other places across the map, but most ended up in Asia.

Puckett used this GPS to travel to the facilities himself in Hong Kong. Here is the full article if you want to read more about his journey and more about e-waste “recycling.”

The terrible part of this too (other than it being dangerous and hazardous) is that shipping waste overseas is illegal if it cannot be refurbished or reused. Oftentimes, wealthy nations just send all junk no matter what. It can be disguised or loopholes can be found, unfortunately. Better enforcement of these laws would be a great benefit to these nations we send our waste to.

The remaining problems:

Planned Obsolescence

Obviously recycling is great, but let’s not stop there. If you haven’t heard of it yet, let’s talk briefly about planned obsolescence. This is the practice in which technology is designed to not last. Whether that be Apple not releasing updates for their older devices or degrading battery life drastically over time or other appliance companies not releasing parts for older models. This means that customers cannot fix and continue to use what they already have and are forced to buy a new product.

With technology becoming more popular and really, necessary for everyday life, it is becoming easier to just buy new products. It is becoming easier for products to be made cheaply and not made to last. So, buy high quality if you can afford it and repair what you can.

Repair what you have

Fridge quit working? Don’t throw it out! Try to fix it first. My mom has fixed our dryer before simply by YouTubing it. You can even hire a repairman or ask a friend for help. Especially if your tech is not outdated and you can still find parts, repair it!

We have begun to live in a world of “just throw it out and buy a new one.” I saw this with Shelbizleee the other week on Instagram. Her microwave quit working and several people told her to just buy a new one. Being the adamant environmentalist she is, she decided to repair it! But, turns out it was something wrong with the electricity flow in her home. Any other person in our throw-away culture would have bought a new one, wasted a perfectly good microwave, just for there to be a different problem. Always try to repair your tech first and look for other issues like this too!

The complicated recycling process

It’s honestly hard to recycle. The US does not make it easy. Recycling education is lacking, recycling resources are lacking. We deserve the right to free recycling and recycling for all materials. Some areas only accept certain materials and that almost never includes tech. For tech, you often have to find special facilities and sometimes have to transport it yourself. Having more drop off locations, easier access to drop off locations, or even being able to put tech in our curbside pick-up would make recycling much easier, more available, and less would end up in the dump.

Lack of Responsibility (on both ends)

Obviously we see a lack of responsibility from producers and manufacturers. They made these items without having take back programs and explaining proper recycling measures. Companies should be responsible for disposing of the waste they create, not consumers (at least entirely).

But, there is also consumer responsibility to treat our devices well enough to last. I feel like this goes right along with living in a throw-away society where we treat our items like garbage before they even are garbage. Something I have learned through minimalism is to value my items and take good care of them. Use a phone case, down thrown items around, repair them, and so forth.

Donate, don’t throw out

Another issue is consumers automatically assuming their items are garbage. Even some non-functioning tech can still be donated to the right places. We need to start rethinking how we dispose of things: donate, recycle, landfill, instead of just straight to the landfill. If your tech still works well, donate it to any thrift shop or non-profits. If you tech works partly or maybe even not at all, try donating to local colleges or technical schools. They might be able to use parts for programs like engineering, robotics, and so forth. Then, once your tech is non-donatable, figure out where you can recycle it. As always, the landfill should be a last resort, especially for something so valuable.

Final thoughts

I like to end posts in this series with a positive note, but honestly, it’s hard in this case. The biggest things we can do as consumers, as always, is buy less, only buy what you need, when you need something shop second hand instead, donate your own tech to a responsible and credible recycling facility, and spread the word. Let others know the truth of tech creation and tech recycling. It is dangerous and we almost always give that burden to those in other countries who work in unsafe and unethical conditions. If possible, support the recycling industry by purchasing recycled tech. This let’s the market know that it is valuable.

It might seem grim right now, but it has the potential to get better. We need to break out of our consumerist mindset and work towards consuming less and creating a circular economy. Instead of thinking “buy new, use for a little while, throw away,” we need to instead think “buy used, use until I can’t use it anymore, repair it if possible, donate or recycle.” Especially when it comes to tech, it should NEVER end up in the trash as it is hazardous but also very valuable and should be reused to avoid the mining of new material.

Especially as we get closer to black friday and Christmas, be mindful of what you buy and how you dispose of old items. Do you really need that new 64 inch TV or is it just tempting because it’s on sale? Do you really need that new iPhone or is your current one still working well? Not only think before your purchase, but think before you dispose. Is this gadget still working and can be donated or even sold? If not, where can I recycle it responsibly?

I hope that you were able to learn something from this post and you found it useful. If you did, I would appreciate you sharing it with others so that they can learn and understand more as well.

Thank you for joining me today to talk more about recycling and until next time, remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run :)


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