[Editor’s Note: Asking Santa for a new electronic gadget this year? Keep this article in mind.]
Electronic waste (e-waste) is any electronic or electrical product, including TVs, computers, phones, home entertainment and stereo systems, and household appliances, that has become part of the waste stream. As the demand for consumer electronic devices increases, so does the volume of e-waste left behind as these items are discarded and replaced with newer, faster models.
According to the U.S. EPA report, Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States, 2012, total e-waste for “selected consumer electronics” in 2012 was 3.412 million tons, only 29% of which was recycled. The remainder ended up in landfills or incinerators. StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem), an international initiative that conducts research on the entire life cycle of electrical and electronic equipment, estimates the global volume of e-waste generated in 2012 was 48.9 metric kilotons and that this number will increase by 33% by 2017.
Here are some of the reasons why recycling consumer electronics is an issue of both environmental and economic importance:
Critical metals play hard to get. Virtually all consumer electronics contain rare earth elements, gold, and/or platinum group metals. If these devices aren’t recycled, the valuable resources within are wasted. That’s a problem because mining these metals is difficult and costly. Rare earth elements seldom exist in pure form; they are usually found within other minerals. Mineable deposits of platinum group metals are very rare and much less productive than those containing many common metals. The cost of gold mining is escalating as the productive deposits run out. According to the EPA ecycling site, one metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the U.S.
Recycling is healthy. Most electronics contain hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. When these devices are left in landfills, these toxins can leach out into the surrounding land, water, and air. Currently, 20 U.S. states ban the disposal of electronic devices in landfills and 25 states have passed legislation requiring e-waste recycling. These efforts could make a difference; the EPA estimates that for every million cell phones recycled, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.
Don’t forget the data: Those old computers have to be scrubbed clean; discarding your computer at a landfill without properly wiping the hard drive leaves you vulnerable. Even recycled computers can be responsible for data breaches if they’re not handled appropriately. While many large corporations have data destruction programs in place, the Ponemon Institute estimates that 70% of data breaches come from discarded computers. One safeguard is to look for a recycler certified by e-Stewards or R2/RIOS™, two programs endorsed by the EPA that provide data protection guidelines to electronics recycling facilities.
The second part of this post will discuss some of the ongoing efforts designed to keep e-waste in the supply chain and out of landfills.