Recycling E-waste

By Eric Christensen

April 9, 2013 5 min read

People often toss old electronics in the nearest trashcan. In 2009, more than 2 million tons of TVs, computers, laptops, printers, scanners, cellphones, batteries and other hazardous electronic waste (collectively known as e-waste) were discarded, making it one of the fastest-growing waste streams around the world. But e-waste contains both precious metals and toxic materials, so it is important that e-waste is recycled properly. Thankfully, both manufacturers and retailers are making it easy for consumers to minimize the impact of e-waste.

E-waste contains both precious and poisonous materials. On the one hand, some electronics contain lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury, which the Environmental Protection Agency says "could pose risks to human health or the environment if mismanaged at their end-of-life." A 2004 EPA report said, "Approximately 70 percent of the heavy metals in municipal solid waste landfills are estimated to come from electronics." On the other hand, e-waste also contains precious metals, such as copper, silver, gold and palladium. The EPA estimates that for every million cellphones recycled, "35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered," allowing the U.S. to conserve these materials instead of mining.

The EPA recommends using certified recyclers. Currently, two certification standards exist -- Responsible Recycling (R2) and E-Stewards -- that require recyclers to undergo audits to ensure they uphold strict environmental standards. But not all organizations are comfortable with both standards. Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, says, "Many private companies will only work with E-Stewards because they don't want their used equipment being exported." Consumers can visit the R2 and E-Stewards websites to learn more and work with a recycler of their choice.

Manufacturers are doing their part, too. Not only are they collecting their old gadgets, but they are also making it easier for recyclers to break down those gadgets safely. Kyle recalls that in 2007 no U.S. TV manufacturer had a program to take back old TVs. But in the lead up to the digital conversion, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition led a campaign to "pressure them to take back old TVs." Kyle says, "By 2010, all the big TV companies had take-back programs."

Similarly, Jason Linnell, executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling, conducted a project, "Closing the Loop," that identified changes manufacturers could make "that could have a real impact on making recycling processes work better, cause less problems when handling dangerous materials and decrease the cost of recycling overall." The report from this project informed the Electronic Products and Assessment Tool program. EPEAT is a product registry that awards manufacturers a gold, silver or bronze status based on "the breakdown process, the energy efficiency, the materials used and other measures," Linnell says. Government and commercial purchasers can then minimize e-waste by selecting from the EPEAT listings.

Electronics retailers are also making it easy for consumers to recycle their gadgets. For example, all U.S. and Puerto Rico locations of Best Buy have drop-off kiosks to collect small items, and they will take some larger items at their customer service counter. If a customer has a new item delivered to their home, in many cases Best Buy will haul away the replaced item to be recycled.

Scott Weislow, director of recycling and waste minimization for Best Buy, says Best Buy only uses recyclers that comply with rigorous standards. "We require them to have environmental management systems in place; we audit them at a minimum of once per year; and we audit their downstream partners." Weislow continues, "As of this year, we require recyclers to have both (R2 and E-Steward) certifications." Despite these strict standards, Best Buy's program has been very successful. Weislow reports, "For every minute our stores are open, we collect over 400 pounds of e-waste."

E-waste continues to be a growing issue. However, governments, manufacturers and retailers are making it easier for consumers to recycle their old gadgets in a safe and responsible manner. Dropping your electronics off at a retailer or locating a certified recycler may not be as easy as tossing the electronics in a trash bin, but it's a better choice for your neighborhood, your health and your planet.

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