Consumers purchase billions of electronic devices every year, but they rarely take the time to properly dispose of their old computers, televisions, and phones. It’s easier to simply throw them out along with the rest of the trash and forget about them. Once these devices end up in the landfill, they’re no longer a problem.
Reality is not quite so simple. Electronics often contain toxic materials that can harm the environment. Other materials are simply rare and difficult to extract from the ground. When consumers casually discard these devices instead of recycling them, the entire industry has less raw materials to work with. Fortunately, electronics recycling is easier today than ever before.
A Staggering Loss
The UN Environmental Program estimates that consumers and businesses throw away “20 to 50 million tons” of electronics every year. That’s equivalent to 10 billion laptops, 2 billion 60-inch LCD televisions, or 325 billion iPhones. The scale is difficult to even imagine, and the problem is only going to get worse.
Smartphones, computers, and other consumer electronics are ubiquitous in North America and Europe, but these markets are growing rapidly in Asia and South America. In Africa, they’re only just beginning. Over the next few decades, consumer electronic production will double or even triple.
Countries with widely available electronics will continue to produce the most e-waste per capita since consumers embrace the current norm of upgrading devices every few years. There’s no clearer example than the iPhone, which has released a new model every single year since 2007.
With record e-waste that continues to grow annually, manufacturers have reduced the amount of toxic materials used in the production of these devices. A mere decade ago, a single rear projection television could have contained up to ten pounds of lead, the same metal the US government has banned from a variety of products like gasoline and paint.
Other commonly used materials include mercury, highly toxic when inhaled or ingested, and cadmium, which is carcinogenic. Even when these materials don’t end up in landfills, they surround everyone and pose health risks, especially in the case of a broken device.
Batteries generally don’t pose a health risk, but lithium is explosive, and there are plenty of reports of melted phones and laptops from faulty batteries. Still, a melted phone is better than the risk of cancer from an old nickel cadmium type battery.
Cause for Hope
Not every report concerning e-waste and its growing impact on the environment is doom and gloom. The other side of this story is that most electronics can be recycled and companies are developing even more efficient techniques for stripping toxic or rare materials from devices for safe disposal or reuse.
It’s also easier than ever to recycle. Many retailers will recycle anything from cell phone batteries to printer ink cartridges free of charge. Some will even pick up an old television for recycling when a consumer purchases a new model and has it delivered. Except in very rare cases, electronics recycling is very convenient and completely free.
Article contributed by Kim Kelley – a Toronto based environmental blogger who enjoys sharing computer recycling tips and ideas.