Recycling E-Waste: Here’s What You Should Know

02 June 2021
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It happens. Suddenly, you can’t get through a meeting without plugging your laptop in to charge, and pretty soon after that, your battery is so weak, it never comes off life support. Of course, batteries degrade, screens crack, and technology advances. Eventually, we need to buy new devices, and get rid of our old ones. It’s inevitable, and the stats are there to prove it (almost 100 million pounds of e-waste are generated every year). 

But, what happens to all of that e-waste (and by e-waste, we mean any device with electrical elements, from smartphones to microwaves)? If they’re not repaired or reused, they end up in landfills, usually in developing countries. There, they leach toxic chemicals into the earth and water, or get sorted and sold for scrap metal, or burned to extract materials by locals who have no Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and who aren’t aware of how dangerous the materials they are in contact with are. It’s a mess, and whether you’re a business, manufacturer or supplier, or just a consumer, you can help clean it up.

Why Disposing of E-Waste, Properly, Matters
Most electronic devices are made of valuable materials like gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, lithium, and cobalt. These materials can be recycled and used to make other products, which means less need to mine virgin materials. Unfortunately, these devices also contain toxic materials like lead (found in most electronics), mercury (found in lighting displays), cadmium (found in computer batteries and monitors) and beryllium (found in cables, TVs, and connectors in smartphones and computers). Of course, these materials serve a purpose, but if they’re not disposed of properly, they can damage soil and water quality, not to mention the health of whoever comes into contact with them.

Which brings us to the fact that most of our e-waste gets shipped to less developed countries to get recycled. This waste is a source of income for locals, including children, who recover the valuable materials in electronic devices by burning away the non-valuable materials, a process which releases extremely toxic substances. They also dismantle devices by hand to recover potentially valuable materials, and they do all of this with no PPE or any real knowledge of how those devices, and the dangerous chemicals they emit, can affect their health.

How You can Solve the E-Waste Recycling Problem
Whether you’re in government, a company who produces electronics, or a consumer who buys and uses electronics, you play an important part in fixing our e-waste problem.

Let’s start with governments. Adopting Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) ensures that producers of electronics take full responsibility for what they create, from design and manufacturing to disposal. Not only does EPR benefit the environment, but it benefits producers too. By taking on more responsibility, they are more likely to think about, and invest in, durable, eco-friendly materials that can be reused or recycled. This has the potential to reduce their production costs.

Which brings us to designing for durability and reusability. We recently wrote a blog on modular smartphones, which does exactly that – it’s a smartphone designed to last, but also to be recycled properly. If one component breaks, consumers can repair or replace it, rather than replace the whole phone.

Think about how you, as a business, can expand sustainable options for your consumers, who are becoming more eco-conscious every day. Think about how you can redesign your product, rethink your product’s packaging, adopt policies that replace toxic chemicals with safer alternatives, or reimagine your service offering in a way that will benefit the environment, and your bottom line.

As a consumer, the best thing you can do is keep your electronic devices for as long as possible (don’t just upgrade your smartphone because your two years are up – if it’s still working, keep it). If your device is faulty, get it repaired instead of swapping it out for a newer model. Remember, a circular economy is one that keeps products in circulation for as long as possible.

If your electronic device still works, sell it online, or to your local electronic shop. Donate it to a school or charity. Find out if there are any e-waste drop-off locations or exchange programs in your area. If your device is beyond repair, make sure you dispose of it correctly. Do your research. Find a certified e-waste recycler (certified by the Basel Action Network - BAN).

However you choose to take care of your old electronics, make sure you keep ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ top of mind.




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