Tackling the Challenge of E-Waste

As we turn the corner into year 3 of the global pandemic, it’s important that we remain vigilant about practices that negatively impact our environment. One way in which we can do this is to work together to reduce the number of electronic items being simply thrown in the trash (known as e-waste). E-waste is the fastest growing stream of waste in the US and globally. The environmental effects are detrimental, and it is further depleting our planet’s already scarce resources. Furthermore, the carbon cost to manufacture electronics is enormous –some indicative figures are: 496lb CO2e in the mining, production and pre-use transport of a laptop, and 121lb in a cell phone.

A consulting group recently estimated that residents and businesses in Washington state threw away 41,441 tons of electronics between 2020 and 2021. It is reported that this is mainly due to e-scrap collection schemes being cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The 41,441 tons of e-scrap, or “e-waste” was comprised of TVs, computers and monitors, peripheral equipment, audio equipment, video game systems, and other electronics. This was a significant increase of 21% from an estimated 34,223 tons during a prior audit that was carried out in 2015-16. 

Calculating a rough per-capita estimate, an analysis found that approximately 10.7 pounds per person were disposed of in 2020-21, up from 9.6 pounds per person five years earlier. These figures mirror national statistics that show we are increasingly acquiring and disposing of electronics.  

Washington has in place an extended producer responsibility (EPR) program for electronics, called E-Cycle Washington. The program covers TVs, desktop and laptop computers, monitors, e-readers, tablets, and portable DVD players. Between January and November 2021, a total of 14.29 million pounds (7,147 tons) of electronics were collected for recycling via this program. That was a 3.2% increase on what was collected during the same period in 2020. It’s clear that the pandemic had a negative effect on e-waste collections, but we must remain vigilant about the proper disposal of electronics.  


Why E-waste Matters in the US 

According to the United Nations, the US produces 14% of the world’s e-waste. Plus, it is a well-known fact that the US ships a yet- to- be- determined amount of e-waste to developing countries. These unlucky recipients of our e-waste don’t have the capacity to reject imports or have the resources and knowledge on how to handle such hazardous material properly.  

There is great concern over the unsafe handling of e-waste as it has been proven that this is harmful to both human health and to the environment. For instance, open-air burning and acid baths being used to recover valuable materials from electronic components expose workers to harmful substances. Such practices expose workers to high levels of contaminants such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic, which can lead to irreversible health effects.  

When e-waste is buried at landfill sites, it can dissolve in microscopic traces into the landfill sludge. These traces of toxic materials will eventually pool or “leach” into the ground below the landfill. This is detrimental to our water supply, as the more E-waste and metals at the landfill, the more trace toxic materials appear in our groundwater. The more contaminated our soil and groundwater, the more at risk our food supply system is. Here in the US, 40% of the lead in our landfills is from discarded electrical and electronic products, according to an EPA study. 

The issue of e-waste is complex, and today we see a growing amount of e-waste comprised of items yet to become obsolete. Advances in technology are so rapid that a lot of electronic devices that still function are quickly labelled as obsolete. For years and years, unwanted electronic devices have been filling landfills across the country. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 60 million metric tonnes (66 million imperial tons) of e-waste end up in US landfills every year. 

What makes the challenge of e-waste even more concerning is the lack of data about it. Many of the available figures that attempt to quantify the scale of the problem are just broad estimates, so the true story of what happens to our waste is often hard to uncover. This makes taking action even more important, as we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of this global challenge.  


Why care about proper disposal?  

It’s crucial to properly dispose of e-waste so that it can be reused, refurbished, or recycled. 

In the US, just 25% of all e-waste is recycled. Recycling e-waste recovers useful materials, such as valuable metals like gold and copper. Manufacturers can then use these materials to make new products, reducing the energy required to mine, refine, and manufacture new materials, thereby reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  

The Environmental Protection Agency has said that by recycling 1 million cell phones, we can recover approximately 35,000 pounds of copper, 33 pounds of palladium, 772 pounds of silver, and 75 pounds of gold! Another staggering statistic comes from a UN report: as much as 7% of the world’s gold may currently be contained in e-waste, with 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore. With those figures, just think of how much value we could recover if we improved our behaviors around e-waste? 


A Circular E-Waste Economy  

It’s clear that we need an overhaul of the current electronics system. We must move away from a linear economy in which resources are extracted, used, and discarded, and work towards a circular economy in which resources are valued and reused. This has the benefit of minimising environmental impacts and creating decent jobs that create value for both people and the planet. 

As individuals, communities, and organizations, we can all take coordinated action to implement a circular economy for e-waste. To make the most out of these resources, we recommended following these steps when handling e-waste: 

  1. Consider whether your items are in fact waste or can be reused by others 
  2. Consider whether or not repair is an option. 
  3. Choose an environmentally responsible option for old equipment, either sale to an accredited ITAD, donation to a charity or sale to a reputable recycler. Good certifications to look for are R2v3 and NAID. Use drop off points if they are available in your district.
  4. Remember the importance of data destruction. You don’t need to break up usable equipment but if it has data storage, you need proof that this has been wiped using top of the line software.  
  5. Buy refurbished or remanufactured products where possible.
  6. If repair or reuse are not viable, look to recycle equipment or components for material recovery. 
  7. Manage components for energy recovery. 

Overall, it’s important to keep in mind that electronic material should be reused, refurbished, or recycled in order to minimize the amount of e-waste that currently ends up contaminating landfills or those developing countries to which its unfairly exported.  

Would you like to discuss how to apply these solutions in your business? Click here to learn about our IT Asset Disposal service or to speak with a member of our team, click here. 

Learn more about what Techbuyer is doing to tackle the e-waste problem.