Technology continues to evolve rapidly with a string of fun, new gadgets hitting stores in the past few months. For instance, recently released tablet-laptop hybrids may have introduced a whole new category of PC; TVs allow consumers to tweet from them; and the standard for smart phones is continually being elevated. Such innovation is paramount to continued economic growth around the globe. But once the gift of a new device is unwrapped, consumers are faced with the question of what to do with their outdated or unusable electronics.
Collectively, “end-of-life electronics” are referred to as e-waste and the classification includes plug-in items such as printers, stereos, microwaves and more. Because these products contain potentially hazardous materials such as lead, mercury and cadmium, it’s dangerous for them to be discarded with traditional waste where toxins can leak into the earth.
In addition, many electronics contain rare earth metals which, much like for fossil fuels, have to be mined from the earth and will eventually run out. But, unlike with fossil fuels, there’s an opportunity to recover and reuse rare earth metals rather than simply using and disposing of them.
E-waste is a problem that continues to grow. Studies show that 40 million tons of e-waste is generated around the world per year with less than 18 percent being disposed of or recycled properly. The United States alone throws out 100 million cell phones, over 47 million computers and 25 million televisions in route to producing 3.3 million tons of e-waste a year.
So what should consumers know and how can they ensure they’re part of the solution and not the problem?
In response to e-waste’s environmental dangers, many U.S. states and countries around the world approved e-waste laws mandating the responsible handling of these end-of-life electronics and forbid consumers from discarding electronics in their regular municipal waste. However, most U.S. states, like New York, Texas and Oregon, as well as countries such as India and Canada, now regulate through the extended producer responsibility (EPR) approach.
EPR laws hold electronics manufacturers, rather than consumers or retailers, financially responsible for the collection and proper downstream handling of electronics. This means that consumers don’t have to pay for the disposal of reasonably sized electronics, such as cell phones and computer monitors. Of course, there are resources for consumers, like e-waste recycling events and directories, so that they can do their part and avoid potential improper disposal fines.
It’s important to remember, however, that not all e-waste recyclers are the same. Consumers should only choose an e-waste processing facility that is third party certified to ensure that end-of-life electronics are being processed to the highest standard of environmental responsibility and worker protection. Currently, R2 and e-Stewards certifications are widely held as the electronics recycling industry’s gold standard for environmental, health, safety and security requirements.
Management of e-waste has evolved greatly over the last decade and the increase in the variety of electronics recycling regulations across the country is not without its challenges. For example, some electronics manufacturers may find that their ability to comply with electronics recycling take-back requirements will be affected because of a loss in revenue. As the regulatory climate develops, more states might move towards other systems, perhaps one that uses money generated through fees from new electronics purchases to support e-waste recycling programs.
Other opportunities to drive e-waste policy is to support environmentally-friendly innovation, also referred to as “design for environment,” which describes a process that takes into consideration the manufacturing of products in a way that makes it easier to replace parts and extract hazardous materials while incorporating more recycled materials. Experts have explained how innovation is essential for domestic economic growth and the electronics industry has an opportunity to fuel that growth.
Technological advances are allowing people to be more creative, more productive, more connected and more entertained than ever before, but it’s important to be diligent in managing how these devices are treated at end-of-life. E-waste isn’t a European problem or a developing country issue; it’s a global concern. As it has many times before, the U.S. has the opportunity to show leadership through innovation.
About the Author: Bob Erie is the Founder and CEO of E-World Recycler and E-World Online, and has over fifteen years of experience in the electronics-recycling field. Since 2009 Bob has worked to create a network of recyclers across the nation to help meet the needs of manufacturers who are now being held responsible for recycling efforts in various states.