Electronics have many toxic metals like arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, mercury or lead, which can be a threat to humans and the environment when not disposed of correctly. They are also made of useful and precious metals like gold, sliver, copper and palladium and with the use of large quantities of energy, all of which are lost when used electronics are just dumped. Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends reusing, donating, and recycling electronics.
1. Upgrade Software and Hardware
The period of time over which people use their electronics is decreasing, and this is not just due to defects or built-in obsolescence. Up to 60% of televisions are replaced by a newer version in Germany alone, even though the old units are still functional. Greenpeace estimates that computers are on an average used for only two years, and cell phones for the shortest time, less than two years instead of their expected lifespan of 4.6 years according to Chron. Computers can last for three to five years, so when they slow down, Chron advises:
- Upgrading the hardware by buying a new hard drive or RAM to extend their use
- Regular maintenance to increase computer lifespan by using free software or downloads to update the operating system and protect against virus and malware that slow the computer down
This strategy is not applicable to laptops which have few components that can be upgraded.
Not everybody needs all the new features that the next generation of computers, cellphones, and other electronics have to offer. Many minor problems are easy to repair and fix at home following instructions at online sites like iFixit. This spares resources and energy necessary to make new units.
2. Share With Family
Functioning electronics can be passed on to family or friends to prolong use in one's personal sphere. The first computer for a child could be a used laptop to explore, or older members can use them to stay in touch with distant relatives. Old electronics are also handy spare parts for future emergencies. Associated with no extra transportation, this method also has a small carbon footprint. Though there are no tax benefits here, the goodwill built is invaluable.
3. Resell or Trade In
Small and functional items such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops are taken by various buy back or trade in programs, both online and retail. You can also opt to sell these items yourself.
- Physical outlets - Physical outlets will check the product and its condition and quote a price. The items are sold on the spot for cash. Retailers like Walmart and Best Buy participate in programs like these. For example, Walmart stipulates that products should be functional, with no damage due to liquids (water, tea or soda, etc), or broken screens, as these may not be covered by contracts. A phone must be unlocked so it can be used with another provider and sim card. Many providers lock the cell phones, but it is now legal for consumers to unlock cell phones and use their gadgets as they please.
- Online buyers -Online buyers like Gazelle and YouRenew have different processes to assess the buy back price. When reselling online, for example at Gazelle, one needs to know the exact brand and answer a few questions to get a quotation. The item is shipped free to these online buyers.
Functional electronics are accepted as donations within the country or for international distribution. Money Crashers features a directory of places to consider for donations. The EPA has a good list of retailers who offer both online, in-store events, and permanent drop-off places for donations (or recycling - check each retailer's details). The Balance lists ten nonprofits and organizations that accept donations in kind. What happens to the electronics will vary, depending on the program. Some examples of what happens to them through various programs include:
- The items are exchanged and used as scholarships to local college and university graduates.
- Sometimes computers are fixed and resold at one-third or less of the price of a new computer to schools.
- Nonprofits working with the disadvantaged get free supplies.
Tax receipts and earning a green label for one's business are other added attractions. Each program has a checklist of items they are looking for, with a contact number, email address or a link for getting more information.
5. Take Back by Manufacturers
Electronics Take Back Coalition (ETBC) shares the names of manufacturers that have voluntary take back programs, which operate in states that have no laws on recycling. Many of the manufacturers work in cooperation with e-Stewards recyclers to retrieve valuable metals, plastic, and glass.
All kinds of items from small to large electronics like computers, laptops and printers, can be given back. Regulations about collection methods of the used items and any applicable fee differ among the companies and depend on the state. Just a few examples of how this works, according to ETBC, include:
- Most of the manufacturers like Dell or Canon take back only their own products, while Apple accepts cell phones of all makes, and is interested also in trade-in of functional goods in exchange for an Apple gift-card.
- Acer uses Best Buy for collection, storage and transport and reimburses their cost. Mailback programs usually cost the consumer money, though recycling is free. HP offers free collection, mailback services, and recycling.
- Then there are firms like Brother, Funai or Hitachi that have no voluntary programs, and operate only in states that mandate electronic recycling.
When left with end-of-life equipment the last option is recycling. Besides manufacturers, there are many recyclers in the US who operate in an independent capacity. The EPA has a list of certified recyclers and supports two certification standards:
- Responsible Recycling ("R2") Standard for Electronics Recyclers is "the premier global environmental, worker health and safety standard for the electronics refurbishing and recycling industry."
- e-Stewards®Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment is a global agency that stands for safe and responsible electronics refurbishing and recycling. They "ban the export of toxic waste to developing countries" and dumping "of toxic waste in solid waste disposal facilities."
It is difficult to retrieve precious metals even at an industrial level. The process needs trained personnel who can operate complex and therefore expensive equipment as electronic items are getting smaller and more complicated in design. This is the reason the U.S. exported 50-80% of e-waste to developing regions in the Far East, India, Africa, and China till 2009 according to Greenpeace.
So, if the collection agencies are not certified by e-Stewards, the final destination of e-waste should be confirmed to ensure it does not end up in developing countries where people, including children, work unprotected in processing the toxic goods.
There is no uniform national law on recycling, and only 25 states in the US have any such laws according to the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER). Information on state recycling laws is available by using a map they provide.
Before donating or recycling IT gadgets, personal data should be erased to safeguard against malpractices. NCER recommends using Tech Soup's website to compare and find the right software for different computers or laptops. Batteries should be removed from smaller gadgets like cell phones as they have to be disposed of separately.
Outlook for the Future
Electronics are not disposed of in a proper manner, and people end up hoarding computers and TV screens at home as they do not know where to bring them. Smaller items like pen-drives, discs and alarm clocks are thrown away as part of mixed residual waste, which end up in landfills or are incinerated, leading to the release of toxic metals into soil or air. People are more aware of the dangers of e-waste now, and attitudes towards disposal are changing. Meanwhile the number of small businesses seizing the opportunities offered by e-waste is increasing. Consumer action and demand can bolster their services to develop a more sustainable use of electronics.