The trouble with e-waste recycling

| July 29, 2013

Admit it: you have a few old electronics lying around gathering dust. Perhaps it’s an old cell phone (or two, or three). Maybe it’s an outdated or broken video game system. You might have a desktop computer that you haven’t used since 2003.

You have the sense that these items shouldn’t simply be dumped in the trash, but you’re not sure what to do with them. With new gadgets coming out daily—and our insatiable national appetite for the Next Shiny New Thing—e-waste is an exponentially expanding issue.

e-waste recycling

A truck near Sydney, Australia collects e-waste to be recycled responsibly. From Mosman Council.

The problem with electronics

“In the U.S., 3 million tons of e-waste (computers, printers, phones, cameras, televisions, refrigerators, etc.) is produced every year.”

There aren’t many places in the U.S. where you can leave your electronics on the curb for standard recycling. In most cases, you need to bring your items to a designated electronics recycler.

Unfortunately, that barrier is just enough trouble to prevent many of us from going through with the process of proper electronics recycling. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, a bit of trouble might be worth your while.

And we do mean worth: you probably don’t see much use for old and broken items, but they may contain hidden value.

The article suggests that certain components in electronics may hold value even when the overall piece is defunct—consider RAM chips or hard drives in old desktop computers. Even when your device is shredded into oblivion by a recycler, the basic materials (aluminum, copper, steel, plastic) can be sold.

Another reason to recycle rather than dump? That broken iPhone doesn’t look great, but if everyone in the U.S. threw away an iPhone, they would fill landfills. Plus, many electronics contain hazardous materials. Proper recycling facilities can remove those hazards, but items discarded in landfills leech chemicals into the ground.


Available at RecycleReminders.

E-waste recycling’s dark side

An important note about electronics recycling: there are proper facilities in the U.S., but e-waste has a “dark side.” According to the Washington Post article, “backyard recycling” is a dangerous practice common in developing countries. The workers are often children and the methods used to break down electronics and extract the reusable materials are damaging to both the environment and the workers’ health.

Global e-waste levels are growing “by 40 million tons per year,” which means that this problem is growing right along with the numbers.

It’s tough to think about a child working in hazardous conditions, but Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment notes that “as with any illegal trade, it would be virtually impossible to stop all e-waste exportation and ‘backyard’ recycling operations.”

One of the big reasons that these overseas recycling facilities flourish is that they are cheaper to operate than facilities in the United States. Unfortunately, that draws some major American companies to “dump” e-waste overseas. In an effort to combat this, two U.S. Representatives recently introduced “The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA) of 2013,” which promises to stimulate the U.S. recycling industry and ban American firms from dumping e-waste overseas. Additionally, the Washington Post reports that the National Science Foundation is currently “funding research into sustainable electronics production.” This would mean less waste and fewer hazards.


Guiyu, a town in China, is one of the largest e-waste sites in the world. Here, a worker attempts to extract reusable material from circuit boards. From Bert van Dijk.

What else can we do?

We can recycle responsibly. We can find—and use—proper recycling facilities in our area. We can campaign for clearer signage and better education. We can also support merchandisers that are investing in cleaner electronics production.

Again, that iPhone may not look like much—but don’t forget that every individual is part of the solution.

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Category: Electronics

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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