New electronics are ubiquitous in our life, especially after birthdays and holidays. In fact, you probably feel you need to get a new laptop or phone.
And electronics today are designed to be hard to fix in order to maintain a slim design. This means it can be more cost effective just to buy a new device. Apple has come under fire for subtly encouraging users to buy new devices with IOS upgrades that will only operate on newer phones. These systems make it hard to avoid buying new products every couple of years, but with this comes major environmental consequences.
The old electronics problem
Often times in the United States, old electronics are simply thrown away. This wastes valuable resources found inside electronic waste. These include gold, silver, and platinum, with mines marring nearby ecosystems for products only used for a short time.
Even if electronics are recycled, it is often not done properly. A majority of our e-waste is sent to other countries, like India, that have less strict environmental policies. The products are then burned or smashed to get to the valuable parts inside. These activities release toxic fumes, expose workers to deadly amounts of pollutants, and contaminate the groundwater.
Solutions for your old technology
To help make the electronics industry more sustainable, there are three main strategies:
- Try only to buy new products if you really need them, not because something is slightly quicker or brighter or with a heavily marketed “form factor”.
- For items that are still in working condition, try to give them a second life. Options include donating, updating software, fixing the item, or using secondhand markets like eBay.
- When an item is at the end of its life, it should be disposed of properly.
Commercial and public recycling Programs
Best Buy, the US’ largest big box electronics store, wishes to be considered part of the solution and admits technology is “the fastest growing waste stream on the planet.” Some details on what the store will and will not take back are here.
Best Buy has already recycled more than a billion pounds of everything from ink toner and cell phones to TVs and major appliances. You may wish to make sure they’ll take what you’ve got (example: yes to rechargable batteries, no to alkaline) before you bring it in.
Staples, similarly, has a beneficial recycling program, although they also provide a list of items they won’t take, from non-rechargable and alkaline batteries to smoke detectors, which have toxic parts.
Seattle has an e-cycle program dedicated to providing free, environmentally friendly e-waste recycling. This program covers TV’s, laptops and tablets. Most of the devices are disassembled in Washington or processed in approved out-of-state facilities. For other electronics such as keyboards and cell phones, another store besides Best Buy that may take your stuff is Staples. This is in an effort to encourage producers of electronics to play a role in minimizing environmental damage across a product’s entire life cycle.
Washington State generally has an “e-cycle Washington” program, and details on recycling resources in your area may be here. Unfortunately, in a recent scandal, the largest participant in the e-cycle program made fraudulent claims on where and how they were recycling your waste. Total Recall, based in Bonney Lake, had a “domestic and safe” recycling program that sometimes stored electronics unsafely and shipped them to Hong Kong...
The lists of items that retailers won’t take, and the controversies that have emerged from some recycling firms, just goes to show that recycling electronics is no easy task and may may still be expensive! Holding off on a purchase altogether, and fixing older “must have” items, may be better for the planet…